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Myanmar military struggles against ethnic armed groups, post-coup resistance forces

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been nearly three years since the coup in Myanmar that plunged the country into civil war - one that's left some 2 million people displaced. The fighting pits a brutal military against ethnic armed groups and post-coup resistance forces, and the military is struggling. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In late October, the so-called Three Brotherhood Alliance began a surprise offensive against the military in northern Shan State, along the border with China. It was wildly successful and continued into the new year.

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SULLIVAN: Earlier this month came perhaps the biggest prize yet - the capture of the city of Laukkai and the surrender of the military garrison there along with its heavy weapons and ammunition, gleefully displayed on social media by the victorious rebels.

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SULLIVAN: It was a stunning and unprecedented defeat.

JASON TOWER: This is the largest surrender in the military's history - 2,389 troops just outright surrendering to the Brotherhood.

SULLIVAN: Jason Tower is the Myanmar Country Director for the United States Institute of Peace. He says the military is slowly bleeding out, which might help explain why, at China's urging, it agreed to a temporary cease-fire with the Brotherhood at talks in southern China last week.

TOWER: I don't really see how they're going to turn this around. I mean, troop morale is at an all-time low. And, all across the rest of the country, fighting continues, and you're not really seeing the military make any progress in the fronts to the west, the south, to the southeast, etc.

SULLIVAN: And all of this has some analysts predicting the military's imminent demise. David Mathieson is not one of them.

DAVID MATHIESON: The military's definitely on the back foot. It's definitely hurting. But if this signals the end, that's not very clear. We don't know when the end will be.

SULLIVAN: But dissention within the military is growing, aimed largely at Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his handling of the war effort, says Min Zaw Oo of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.

MIN ZAW OO: I talked to a few battalion commanders and their counterparts, and they are very loyal to the military as an institution, but they are dissatisfied with the leadership. There are a lot of this sentiment from the battalion commander who consider that the leadership failed them.

SULLIVAN: But it's still an institution that believes only it can maintain the unity of the country at whatever cost and has proven this in its brutal campaigns against ethnic minority militias over the years and against its own ethnic Burman majority since the coup. That's unlikely to change, says David Mathieson, even if Min Aung Hlaing is replaced.

MATHIESON: And if they are being pushed with their backs to the wall, they're - basically, it's going to be scorched earth everywhere that they go, and the evidence is the past three years.

SULLIVAN: And even if the military does fall, he says, what then?

MATHIESON: I think that there is a distorted analysis that presumes there is a lot more unity between all of the different armed groups and a unanimity of goals and aspirations.

SULLIVAN: The only thing they all agree on, he says, is that the military has to go.

MATHIESON: The political vision of a lot of the groups behind Operation 1027, the Kokang and the Ta'ang - they're pretty much limited to Shan State and the border with China. They don't necessarily have a national Myanmar vision, and that's what I think people have to contend with. There's a lot less unity than some people are trying to propound.

SULLIVAN: But there is momentum. Just this week, one of the more powerful ethnic militias seized a major township in the west of the country bordering India and Bangladesh.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.