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Myanmar military suffers major setback against opposition

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Now to Myanmar, where an attack by an alliance of ethnic armies has dealt the country's military a serious setback. The alliance had previously refrained from overtly taking sides in efforts to return Myanmar to a democratic rule following a 2021 military coup, and now that has changed. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The audacious offensive by the so-called Three Brotherhood Alliance, along with smaller anti-junta groups, encountered so little resistance, it just kept going, occupying dozens of military posts, border towns and key roads along the main trade route with neighboring China.

DAVID MATHIESON: In 25 years of doing this, I haven't seen an operation of that breadth and daring and sheer coordination, you know, with multiple actors, many of whom have spent a long time preparing for this. So it suggests a level of strategic patience, logistics, planning and operational security that is almost unheard of in the rest of Myanmar.

SULLIVAN: David Mathieson is a Myanmar analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

MATHIESON: There's no hard data on just how many casualties have been inflicted, but it seems like it's been very heavy. Also, the use of drones and the destruction of bridges - I mean, this is a very well-thought-out operation.

SULLIVAN: One of those drones reportedly killed a senior military commander believed to be the highest-ranking officer lost in combat since the coup. The U.N. says the fighting has displaced some 50,000 people in northern Shan State.

SENG: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: This shopkeeper, Seng (ph), in the northern city of Lashio, told NPR the main highway to China has been closed due to the fighting and that prices for basic goods have risen as a result. Opponents of the military are meanwhile hailing the assault as a possible turning point in the nearly three-year-long war against the military. Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar adviser for the International Crisis Group, isn't so sure.

RICHARD HORSEY: You know, and that's really given a morale boost to the resistance, which, you know, has not really been generating all that much momentum on the battlefield or politically over the last few months, but it's too early to judge how this is going to end.

SULLIVAN: He says that will largely depend on what the military's counterattack will look like.

HORSEY: You know, if that's very weak and uncoordinated and slow in coming, then that will message to many people across Myanmar that, as some have been saying in the resistance, the Myanmar military is weak. Its morale is low. It hasn't got the power that it once had. On the other hand, if they are able to muster a determined, decisive response, that will put some of those claims to rest.

SULLIVAN: Neighboring China's response to the fighting has so far been muted beyond urging an end to it and advising its citizens not to travel to the north, where it also has ties to some of the groups involved. But its patience with the junta may be wearing thin. The military's inability or unwillingness to shut down cyber scam centers along the border that have ensnared Chinese citizens is one reason. But David Mathieson thinks an even bigger concern for China is protecting its existing energy pipelines and the railway it wants to build as it expands its influence and trade links in the region and beyond.

MATHIESON: Ultimately, what the Chinese really want is stability, certainty, predictability because they've still got all these Belt and Road infrastructure projects to pursue on it. It's not a good look when the military regime can't hold on to one of the major trading points. And you've got all of these insurgents, you know, waving flags and having destroyed all the police stations and the bridges.

SULLIVAN: Not a good look, he says. That may cause China to rethink its reluctant embrace of the military post-coup when the junta said it could protect China's people and its interests in the country. Nearly three years later, as the civil war rages, with nearly 2 million people internally displaced, Beijing may now indeed be having second thoughts.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "LONGING") 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
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.