Sai Wansai — How is the Spring Revolution faring?
When it comes to the answer, there is both cause for hope and also worried concern, as the answer is intertwined with the National Unity Government (NUG) and its relations with the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO), and the cold, hard fact that many resistance groups or People’s Defence Forces (PDF) are poorly armed, and experimenting with home-made rifles and improvised explosive devices (IED).
To gain an insight into the progress being made by the Spring Revolution, it is useful to assess the statements made around the NUG’s first anniversary, to assess how much of the resistance sits under the NUG umbrella and how much is independent, and then to look at more recent developments, including the angry spate of PDF reactions in the wake of the junta’s execution of four pro-democracy activists.
Myanmar sees daily firefights but how is the battle for Myanmar’s soul faring?
WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION
The NUG did not miraculously appear out the ether the day the military illegally grabbed power in 2021. It took a couple of months to coalesce.
Now, over 18 months after the coup, we are in a better position to make an assessment of progress of what has been called the Spring Revolution.
On 16 April this year, the NUG issued a press release concerning its performance on the first anniversary of its founding. It outlined the NUG’s achievements in five areas which were foreign relations, social, economy, military and politics.
Concerning foreign affairs, the NUG said it was calling on the international community to ditch recognition of the illegal military junta and push for recognition of the NUG and Spring Revolution.
In the United Nations, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun continues to represent Myanmar on behalf of the NUG, while its functionaries and ministers have been meeting and discussing with high officials from friendly countries. Documentation is being compiled on crimes against humanity committed by the junta in coordination with domestic and foreign organizations. NUG representatives were appointed to the Czech Republic, UK, Norway, France, Australia, South Korea and Japan. The NUG is working to gain representation in ASEAN. It is also preparing to open a representative office in the US.
In the social sector, the NUG provides support for public service such as healthcare and education, including humanitarian aid for the needy public and supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) which has been a crucial part of the Spring Revolution.
The NUG has been providing online healthcare to the public and has opened 51 hospitals and 44 basic healthcare clinics in its controlled areas. It also provides healthcare services to the public through 167 mobile clinics. Besides, the NUG has reopened some nursing universities and conferred the participants Nursing Degrees accordingly. The NUG is also preparing to reopen the medical universities.
In the educational field the NUG is implementing virtual online teaching for basic, higher and vocational training through its education boards in 286 townships. The NUG has started working on in-person teaching in its controlled areas.
Within a year, the NUG was able to provide around 2.72 billion Kyat in humanitarian funds. It is systematically working in cooperation with the Coordination Committee composed of ethnic organizations, the Public Administrative Bodies, the PDFs, relevant MPs and the civil society organizations (CSOs). In addition, the NUG was able to provide aid to more than 50,000 pregnant women. The NUG is planning to honour the CDM staff, according to its press release.
Militarily, the NUG is implementing the central command system by forming the Central Command and Coordination Committee (C3C) in coordination with its allied armed groups. The NUG’s Defence Ministry has formed PDFs in more than 250 townships along with 259 regiments and units. More than 100 of the 354 Local Defence Forces (LDFs) formed in urban and rural areas are affiliated with the NUG’s PDF regiments and units. Within one year, the NUG has spent around $30 million on the military sector.
The NUG’s Defence Ministry, the PDFs, the LDFs and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) control around 50 per cent of the total area of the country, according to the NUG’s press release.
To date, the total number of soldiers and police members defection to the people’s side has reached some 10,000 and about 450 million Kyat have been spent on the defectors.
The NUG has been holding informal talks with the EAOs with the aim to overthrow the military junta and end the military dictatorship.
In the economic sector, the NUG has prioritized to cut off the income sources of the junta, such as cutting the connections with the big oil companies like Total and Chevron which are its major income sources, to be in tune along with the economic sanctions imposed by foreign countries. Up until March 2022, the NUG has sold up to 72,580 treasury bonds to raise funds for the revolution.
In the political sector and transitional period, the NUG vowed and committed itself to strive for a federal democratic union as aspired to by the people according to the Federal Democracy Charter approved at the People’s Congress led by the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), according to its first anniversary press release.
The press releases of a host of PDF groups might give the impression that the war is being won against the forces of the military junta. But reality is more nuanced.
Myanmar Peace Monitor, published by the Burma News International in its Issue No: 50, 20 April 2022 titled, “NUG Annual Report Card” writes:
“According to the facts included in the NUG’s one-year anniversary statement, the future journey of the Spring Revolution is very satisfying. However, the NUG’s protection of the people from cases like the Military Council’s atrocities, massacres and mass burnings, arson in Thantlang of Chin State and the burning of houses in the villages in Sagaing Region, is questionable. It is found that the NUG is weak in arming the PDFs and providing technical assistance and the necessary funds for the revolution forces which emerged in urban and rural areas although the NUG declared the nationwide revolt against the military group.”
“The NUG’s trust, understanding and support for the revolutionary forces which are making resistance by taking up arms is not enough to crush the deeply-rooted dictatorship as the Military Council is equipped with better weapons.”
“In an interview with the RFA, the NUG’s Defence Minister said only 25 percent of the revolutionary forces in urban and rural areas could affiliate with the NUG over the one-year of the Spring Revolution. Except the record-taking and the issuance of statements which denounce airstrikes across the country, the NUG could do nothing.”
Seen from what the NUG’s Defence Minister Ye Mon said it is clear that a lot needs to be done to bolster the armed wing or PDF forces of the NUG in order to change the military balance in its favour.
BUILDING MILITARY CAPABILITY
What is clear is that the last year has seen rush by largely young participants to take up arms against the military junta – but a desperate realization that the arms are hard to find.
The peaceful anti-coup rallies of the first few weeks after the February coup turned into bloody crackdowns in March 2021. This in turn gradually morphed into armed resistance when confronted with the junta’s extreme repression.
“Open fighting between the military regime and the pro-democracy movement began on March 28th, 2021 when junta troops stormed a protest camp in Tarhan ward, Kalay Town in Sagaing Region. Protesters in Tarhan, armed with makeshift weapons, resisted the security forces,” writes Ye Myo Hein in his recent study titled “One Year On: The Momentum of Myanmar’s Armed Rebellion” published in May 2022.
“Fighting quickly sprang up in other parts of the country. Completely unanticipated by the coup leaders, an armed resistance movement erupted in the Bamar-dominated heartland of Myanmar, which had witnessed little armed conflict for several decades,” he points out.
The newly-formed groups are known widely as PDF, with some joining the EAOs.
Those who worked independently and also under the NUG soon found out acquiring weapons was not an easy task, especially in the central regions like Sagaing and Magwe, and fighting with home-made guns was not a solution. So, they turned to making improvised explosive devices (IED).
Military-grade weapons imported or made in EAO-run factories typically cost triple when they reach central Burma, which the PDF in these areas could ill afford. But in contrast assembling IEDs is relatively easy and affordable and its usage is also potent in guerrilla warfare.
Laying a string of IED along the road and detonating it together when the enemies enter the killing zone has been a tactical strategy largely used in Chin State, Sagaing and Magwe regions, including Karen, Kachin and Karenni states, with high effectiveness. It is known as “Padaeda mine”, which means a string of connected mines exploded together at the same time, causing huge damages to the junta’s troops, as evident by the numerous attacks on the junta troops countrywide by the resistance groups.
The PDF and LDF in Sagaing learning from YouTube and sharing know-how between themselves went from making rudimentary guns to assembling explosives and mines according to various social media reports.
As of May, Yinmabin PDF in Sagiang Region was able to produce a long-range artillery system that has a range of around nine miles, according to their claims.
Reportedly, they were able to use it and the artillery fire in one attack killed about 10 junta soldiers when they targeted a bunker in the fighting in Sagaing’s Kani Township on 12 May.
How can we view the efforts being made to arm the fighters of the Spring Revolution?
Following these rudimentary weapons production efforts, some of which proved deadly to the makers, the People Soldiers Production Team (PSPT) was formed in December 2021. They include graduates of the Defence Service Academy and military officials from the Directorate of Artilleries — and represent a first in self-produced weapons by insurgent forces in Myanmar, according to a RFA report 10 June.
Accordingly, they said when they joined the CDM or resistance they took all the instruction blue-prints necessary for the production of weapons.
Captain Nyi Thuta, the leader of the PSPT, told RFA Burmese that the group had selected four types of guns and other weapons for production from eight it had experimented within the last six months. The new weapons are already being used in military campaigns.
“We are manufacturing single-shot firearms. We also produce automatic submachine guns. They can fire single shots or empty an entire magazine,” he said.
“We are also manufacturing land mines as well as bombs that can be dropped using drones. We have plans to produce many other weapons, but we can’t disclose that information right now.”
Nyi Thuta said that while the research required to manufacture a gun typically costs up to 1 billion kyat (US$540,000), the cost to produce them outside of a factory is as much as four times cheaper than those on the market. He gave the example of a PSPT-produced submachine gun, which costs only 1.3 million kyat (US$700) compared to 5 million kyat (US$2,700) from a retailer.
Nyi Thuta said that PSPT weapons are of “standard quality and effectiveness,” but the group is only able to produce one-eighth of what normal manufacturers can produce because of limited access to equipment, according to the RFA report.
ASSESSING THE RESISTANCE FORCES
Who are the groups that make up the Spring Revolution resistance?
In the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup revolutionary groups popped up like mushrooms following the massive crackdowns of the mass rallies across the country. Four months after officially forming the PDFs, the NUG declared a “people’s defensive war” against the military junta on 7 September 2021, which undoubtedly helped fill up the ranks of the revolutionary groups in a major way.
Terminology matters but it can also be confusing to an outsider.
On 5 May, the NUG formally announced the “People’s Defence Force (PDF)” which are broadly classified into two categories as “local defence forces” (LDFs) and those linked with the NUG’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), which are known as “PDFs,” according to Ye Myo Hein in his study mentioned above.
According to him “LDFs have mostly developed from local defence teams, and they operate in their townships (somewhat) independently and separately from the NUG while remaining outside its command and control.”
“The PDFs on the other hand bear stronger connections to the shadow government – some were formed by, others recognized by, and a few commanded by the NUG,” he writes.
“Beside LDFs and PDFs, there are also People’s Defence Teams (PDTs, or PaKaPha in Burmese) formed by the NUG. The main task of the PDT is to engage in urban guerrilla warfare, to provide trainings and necessary logistics, to mobilize the public and to coordinate during major offensives with the PDFs,” according to Ye Myo Hein.
He explained the broadly-based new revolutionary groups as follows: “Unlike the periphery-based ethnic armed groups, the PDFs, PDTs, and LDFs extend throughout the whole country, from Tanintharyi in the south to Kachin in the north and from Karenni and Shan in the east to Chin in the west. Despite their ubiquity, they are unevenly distributed, as Sagaing hosts the largest number and Ayeyarwady and Shan have only a small number.”
According to him, the NUG initially formed five regional commands namely: Northern, Eastern, Southern, Central, and Western Regional Commands, but later those regional commands were later merged into three military divisional commands, No. (1) Military Divisional Command, No. (2) Military Divisional Command and No. (3) Military Divisional Command.
“The PDFs are formed as battalions under the Military Divisional Commands, and the PDTs are township-based defence forces under the control of the NUG’s Ministry of Defence. Most LDFs are also township-based militia groups formed by the local pro-democratic activists, but some were coalesced into district, region, and state-level coalitions. The NUG has also started forming People’s Administrative Teams (PATs, PaAhPha in Burmese) and People’s Security Teams (PSTs, PaLaPha in Burmese), of which the former is mainly concerned with administrative activities and the latter with public security duties.”
Regarding the strength of the newly-formed groups he writes: “The total number of the PDF/PDT/LDF personnel is difficult to estimate. We estimated that it hovers around 25,000 in our November report, but we expected that the figures would increase as the initial volunteers passed their basic military lessons on to other young activists. Based on our February 2022 data, the total number of the PDF personnel is now around 40,000, and the number within the PDTs is not much different from that figure. U Ye Mon, the NUG Defence Minister, said that the number of PDFs is between 50,000 and 100,000.”
Concerning the problemat of acquiring armaments he writes: “The other main challenge is to acquire arms and ammunition. So far, the NUG and EAOs have managed to procure only around 10,000 small arms for the PDFs, while it is estimated that approximately 5,000 rifles were purchased on the black market by individual PDFs and LDFs, with the support of public donations and with their own money. The 15,000 small arms represent only 20 to 25 percent of all the weapons needed by all the anti-junta combatants. Most resistance forces therefore rely on home-made firearms produced by the local arms-manufacturing facilities.”
On capacity to produce much needed firearms he writes: “According to my findings, there are about 70 weapons manufacturing workshops, of which 10 to 12 percent can produce semi-automatic rifles, including 3-D printing productions, but most are still rudimentary. These home-made firearms serve about 30 to 40 percent of localized armed requirements.”
Regarding the lack of heavy armaments and an air defence system he writes: “In addition to a significant shortage of small arms, the resistance forces severely lack heavy armaments. Photos and video footage frequently posted on social media demonstrates that some forces have acquired more advanced weapons, such as machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers and mortars, but these are in very limited numbers. Throughout the past several months, the Sit-Tat (Myanmar Army) has been launching heavy offensives against the PDFs with air-power, artillery, and armoured-vehicles, and countermeasures such as artillery, anti-air, and anti-armour capabilities are still unavailable to anti-junta forces. Although some EAOs possess heavy equipment, such as China-made man portable air defence systems, they are reluctant to hand them over to the newly-founded armed outfits.”
PROGRESS BUT LIMITED FUNDING
NUG’s Defence Minister Ye Mon on 5 May, to mark the first anniversary of the PDF’s establishment, told Myanmar Now in an interview that he was satisfied with the progress made.
“I am actually very satisfied with the PDF’s journey over the past year. I’m proud of it, in fact. Our comrades started from nothing at all. They had no military training and no weapons. At the beginning of the armed resistance, they had to invent their own weapons to fight back against the junta. So, you can say we have really come a long way since then.”
“We have been able to arm our troops to some extent, so that’s a win for us. When the PDF was first founded, we didn’t even have any funds, but thanks to the people’s support and our troops’ commitment, dedication and perseverance, we managed to overcome many challenges,” he added.
Responding to the question to what extent have the PDF been armed, he said: “We have formed a total of 259 PDF battalions and local defence forces in 250 townships, according to our latest records. We have also finished forming regional commands and supervision teams. We are prioritizing the formation of supervision teams for each district at the moment.
“In just eight months, we managed to arm 10 times more troops than when we started. We have collected more weapons and ammunition for the coming months. Therefore, we are going to be able to provide more weapons for the defence forces.
“We are also finally able to make our own semi-automatic rifles and support is also given for the production of those rifles. Therefore, the revolution is going to pick up momentum in the coming months,” he added.
Naing Htoo Aung, permanent secretary of the NUG Ministry of Defence, echoed the sentiment of his superior Ye Mon according to the media reports.
When he was asked if more direct attacks against the junta were to be expected this year, he confidently answered “Yes”.
He said his ministry needed over US$100 million to arm all the PDF troops and due to underfunding it can only fund 10 per cent of the troops.
The defence ministry has a separate unit for weapon production provided financial, material and technical assistance to the production groups. It has achieved significant improvement after numerous failures and started to see the benefits of the money it spent on research and development over the last year. The ministry attaches great importance to the weapon production and details on the development will be revealed at an appropriate time.
While the junta’s research think-tank said the NUG’s defence department weapon manufacturing cannot be effective and accurate due to the lack of necessary precise machinery, the PSPT is of a different opinion.
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the pro-military Thaenaga Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said any weapons produced outside of factory settings would be largely useless against Myanmar’s military, according to the RFA report in June.
“The technology needed to build military weapons requires far more precision than what can be found in civilian industry. The accuracy required is on the micro-scale level, so I question whether that can be achieved in a regular workshop,” he said.
“Secondly, it would be nearly impossible for them to maintain consistent quality on a mass-production scale, given the lack of raw materials. … These challenges are crucial to overcome if they are hoping to win a revolution.”
However, Naing Htoo Aung, permanent secretary of NUG, rejected Thein Tun Oo’s views, suggesting that with help from the NUG in securing funding and raw materials, the PSPT’s weaponry could turn the tide for the resistance.
“In this situation, improving self-production facilities, both in terms of quality and quantity, is the most helpful way to contribute to the revolution,” he said.
Although the NUG’s defence ministry had spent around US$30 million in funding on the resistance movement, it acknowledged that it would not be able to supply all the PDF units with enough weaponry needed, the RFA report said.
However, if SR-1 (Spring Revolution -1) production rollout, which is in the category of sub-machine gun can be produced between 300,000 to 500,000 it will be a big game changer and the revolution will finish quickly, Naing Htoo Aung said.
The SR-1 sub-machine gun production which will continue is mainly aimed at supplying the revolutionary forces in Sagaing Region.
“We are helping Sagaing Region in two patterns. One is giving the weapons which we produce to them directly and the other is sharing know-how and financial aid so that they can produce the weapons themselves,” said CDM Captain Nyi Thuta, according to Myanmar Pressphoto Agency in its 13 May report.
The NUG through Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung and UN representative Kyaw Moe Tun have been pushing for military material and related support.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the July executions of four pro-democracy activists, there has been a noted uptick in do-or-die resistance by the PDFs against the military junta.
Whatever the junta was thinking in allowing the judiciary to go ahead and hang these men, the actions appear to have prompted a redoubling of efforts by the PDFs to oust the generals, sinking any possibility of dialogue between the two sides.
POSSIBLE END GAMES?
Behind the die-hard euphoria of the Spring Revolution resistance movement is a question of the end-game outcome, at least in the medium term.
Burma experts and analysts have posited four likely scenarios.
First, the junta will be able to crush all the opposition groups and resume unchallenged authority again like in the past.
Second, the ethnic-democratic opposition – NUG, PDFs and EAOs – wins the fight and are able to establish the much aspired to and anticipated federal democratic union.
Third, the stalemate drags on and a long war of attrition continues without decisive victory for any party.
And fourth, the country falls into an abyss with the various armed groups ruling their fiefdoms in a failed state manner.
By all indications, the present situation is akin to the fourth scenario, in practical terms.
But the NUG/PDF, together with the EAOs may be able to avert the outcome in line with the number two scenario of beating the military junta and delivering a democratic federal union to the people.
Political settlement through dialogue with the junta is unthinkable, given its crimes against humanity, reign of terror and tyrannical rule that has killed and detained thousands of people, for the majority of the ethnic-democratic groups – although a small portion of EAOs still are open for negotiation with the junta and a few are sitting on the fence.
In addition, the mood of the people can be summed up in a line displayed often in flash demonstrations across the country that reads: “Thwe Kywe Mar Pay Sut Saya Ma Shi Bu” which literally means “Blood debts cannot be repaid”.
In concrete terms when it comes to the EAOs, the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) signatories of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNLA-PC), New Mon State Party (NMSP), and Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) are open for negotiation with the junta, while the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Mongla or National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) are prepared to sit on the fence.
After a break of two years of an informal ceasefire since end of 2020, the Arakan Army (AA) might be on the verge of re-entering the armed conflict against the junta, due to the rivalry of imposing their respective administration apparatus in Arakan State. Likewise, the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) could also be in the same situation as the junta is pressuring it to remove three of its outposts which until now has rejected thrice by the SSPP.
Speculation is rife that the junta is not satisfied with the UWSA as it has not sided with the junta as expected but chosen to sit on the fence; and teasing SSPP is a way to irritate the UWSA or touching the water to find out whether it will really side with its ally SSPP when the junta really starts to attack SSPP.
The territories of SSPP and UWSA are adjacent and also the former serves as a buffer for the latter, which is crucial to its security and has to be protected at all cost. Thus, if the SSPP is attacked, the UWSA might abandon its fence-sitting stance and enter the armed conflict fray.
In contrast, the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni states EAOs are generally in tune with the NUG/PDF concerning the common outlook of replacing the junta and uprooting the military dictatorship, so that the people’s aspirations can be realized.
Thus, the task of the NUG, as the principal representative of the Bamar-dominated regions will have to be two things to heighten the tide of the Spring Revolution.
One is to put more effort into soliciting and realizing the broad alliance of ethnic-democratic forces politically and militarily, even though it is already on the right track.
Another is to work for more military capability by empowering the PDF with more weapons and combat readiness, with the aim to take down the military junta in any way possible.
When it comes to the NUG’s scorecard over a year after its establishment, positive marks can be offered despite the hurdles they have faced. But the body that makes up the official hub of the Spring Revolution will have to do far more to pull out the stops if Myanmar is to become a free, democratic and federal union.