Webinar on “Operation 1027 and Its Broader Implications for Myanmar”

In this webinar, three experts discussed the unfolding effects of Operation 1027, a major offensive launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA), which comprises the Myanmar National Democratic Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA), and constituting one of the most significant challenges confronting the State Administration Council (SAC) regime in Myanmar since the 2021 coup.

Myanmar Studies Programme Webinar

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 – The Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS invited Mr. Amara Thiha, doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo; Mr. Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, an independent analyst; and Ms. Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, to discuss the different aspects and consequences of Operation 1027. Ms. Moe Thuzar, Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, moderated the webinar, which attracted the interest of 102 attendees. Ms Moe provided a brief recap of Operation 1027, highlighting its unprecedented scale and speed that had altered conflict dynamics against Myanmar’s military regime, inspiring similar actions by other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and resistance groups. Within days of its launch, 3BHA captured several towns and military outposts along the China-Myanmar border, including key trade routes along the Mandalay-Lashio-Muse Union Highway. At the time of the webinar, the 3BHA had taken control of over 200 military positions in northern Shan State.

EAO Motivations

  • During Operation 1027, combatants fighting alongside the 3BHA included members from the EAOs and individuals from newly-formed ethnically-identified groups or ethnic defence forces (EDFs). The Bamar People Liberation Army (BPLA), Chinland Defence Force (CDF), and Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) may be considered EDFs.
  • The EAOs’ motivations are mainly: 1) The MNDAA aims to reclaim the Kokang region with a limited offensive, which was lost to the Myanmar military regime in 2009, and 2) MNDAA and its allies are aligning with China’s political objectives and the goal to clear scam operations in the area.
  • The MNDAA’s aim is mainly the Peng family’s interest to reclaim Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region.  The MNDAA had been preparing for more than a year to retake Laukkai, delayed only by a mediation attempt by China’s special envoy.
  • The 3BHA members are part of the FPNCC, a broader alliance among powerful EAOs in Shan State and non-signatories to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), also an FPNCC member, maintained a distance from Operation 1027, which indicates differing political agendas. The nature and areas in which Operation 1027 was launched also indicate a limited operation involving limited warfare aimed at retaking strategic positions, consistent with the 3BHA’s previous strategies.
  • The non-participation by other (key) EAOs in Operation 1027 could be due to:  
    1. Differing political agendas among a) those aligned with the NCA, such as the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), which collaborate with China on anti-scam efforts but refrained from direct involvement in Operation 1027; b) those in communication or working with the NUG and the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karen National Union (KNU), and the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF); and c) FPNCC/UWSA track seeking various levels of autonomy.
    2. Complicated ethnic identities in Shan State, as EAOs in Shan State have different ethnic identities. Even though 3BHA claimed that Operation 1027 was part of the broader nationwide resistance, and working (with China) to eliminate scam operations, the MNDAA, TNLA and AA retained their respective ethnic identity, distinct from others, particularly the majority Shan ethnic nationalities.
    3. Ambiguous nature of the alliance as to whether Operation 1027 was aimed at achieving short-term goals, or as a long-term alliance/partnership, or as part of the NUG/NUCC platform to achieve nationwide political objectives. This ambiguity complicated the interest of EAOs with limited resources to join the offensive. 

Possible trajectory

  • The Myanmar military under the SAC is regrouping defensively to protect remaining strongholds and regional commands. The Myanmar military has not yet launched a counter-offensive, though such a move may likely involve a series of smaller operations over several months rather than a large-scale response. The SAC may also seek to reach a de facto ceasefire or agreement in some form.
  • The 3BHA’s past behaviour also indicate that it may seek to capitalise on Operation 1027 momentum and political support from the broader resistance movement to continue expanding control over areas until they establish a de facto ceasefire.
  • Though the NUG and the resistance view the 3BHA’s aim as part of the movement against the Myanmar military, the MNDAA’s focus is on reclaiming Laukkai and Kokang territory. The TNLA seeks territorial control in Shan State, and a more prominent role in Myanmar’s politics, and the AA wants autonomy in Rakhine State.

Shifting conflict dynamics

  • The 3BHA had planned Operation 1027 for several months, including the MNDAA’s recruitment and training of “Brigade 611” whose members also comprised combatants from other ethnic and local/people’s defense forces.
  • In the wake of Operation 1027, EAOs in Kayah State launched Operation 1107 and Operation 1111 on 7 and 11 November respectively, aiming to capture the Kayah state capital, Loikaw. The AA launched an offensive in Rakhine State on 13 November. In Sagaing Region, PDFs aligned with the NUG also made substantial advancements. Chin resistance forces managed to capture several towns and outposts along the India-Myanmar border.
  • The Myanmar military is relying on aerial and artillery firepower (and, in Rakhine State, shelling from navy vessels ) to regain and maintain control of their outposts.
  • Though the SAC chief stated an intent to initiate a counterattack, numerous SAC garrisons surrendered to resistance forces in areas bordering China. The SAC chief has accused foreign intervention in Operation 1027, leading to organised anti-China campaigns, including staged protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. The SAC has also encouraged other ethnic minority groups to establish militias to fight the 3BHA and the KIA.
  • The SAC’s stated concern about the country’s fragmentation seems unlikely. EAOs are aware that autonomy alone will not address their political goals as long as the Myanmar military controls political power. EAOs might even consider bringing the offensive to Naypyitaw, in coordination with other resistance groups, to achieve their political objectives.

China’s Interests

  • Since the coup, China has maintained its non-interference stance. However, it has previously emphasised that if Myanmar’s internal developments affect China’s domestic security, what happens in Myanmar may no longer solely be Myanmar’s internal concern.
  • China has two primary interests regarding northern Myanmar:
    1. Cyber scams. The cyber-scam operations along the northern Myanmar-China border began only a few years ago, but lack of control by any governing entity in Myanmar swiftly transformed that border area into an epicenter of cybercrimes in the region. Despite China’s attempts to engage Myanmar in controlling cybercrimes, Naypyitaw has not cooperated in apprehending local militias shielding cyber scam networks. China may thus have tacitly sanctioned the 3BHA offensive as a rebuke to the SAC’s lack of cooperation.
    2. Border Security.  Conflicts between the Myanmar military and EAOs in Kokang region and Kachin State have caused Chinese casualties in the past, especially when Myanmar warplanes entered China’ airspace and (mistakenly) bombed Chinese territory. Chinese trucks along trade routes have also occasionally been caught in the conflict. China typically responds to these occurrences with live-fire military drills near the border to pressure both sides into a ceasefire. Both sides involved in the conflict have utilised such incidents to portray a negative image of the other side, provoking China to respond.
  • There is no incentive for China to oppose the SAC if the regime cooperates with China’s anti-cybercrime operations. Under the current circumstances, the SAC is not in a position to refuse cooperation.
  • China still does not consider SAC as the sole cause of instability in Myanmar. Having previously had a positive relationship with successive Myanmar’s military regimes, and with the Peng family of MNDAA, China may anticipate (and prepare for) a new status quo with the MNDAA if it (re)secures the Kokang region.

The audience raised questions covering several facets of Operation 1027: the classification of EDF, a reminder of how the Sri Lankan regime won the civil war through firepower despite manpower shortages and loss of territorial control, SAC’s internal politics, China’s perceived role in 3BHA’s innovative tech-savvy warfare, unity within the resistance movement, and whether Myanmar faced becoming a fragmented state.