Myanmar’s military-installed president, Myint Swe, has warned that the country is in danger of breaking apart if the government cannot control the ongoing fighting in Shan State.

Three ethnic insurgent armies, supported by other armed groups, have overrun dozens of military posts and captured border crossings and roads carrying most of the overland trade with China.

This is the most serious setback suffered by the junta since it seized power in February 2021. The government has responded with airstrikes and artillery bombardments, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes. However, it has been unable to bring in reinforcements or recover the ground it has lost.

Brigadier General Aung Kyaw Lwin, the most senior officer killed in combat since the coup, is among hundreds of troops killed. This attack marks the first time the well-armed insurgents operating in Shan State have explicitly aligned themselves and their military operations with the wider campaign to overthrow the junta and restore democratic rule.

China, which typically acts as a restraining influence on all groups along its border with Myanmar, has not prevented this operation from going ahead.

The insurgents say one of their aims is to close down scam centers. Many ethnic insurgents in Myanmar have fled to areas controlled by ethnic insurgents along the country’s borders with Thailand, China, and India, seeking access to training and weapons.

Some well-established ethnic armies, such as the Karen, Kachin, Karenni, and Chin, allied themselves with the National Unity Government (NUG) set up by the deposed administration. Others, like the Shan State, a huge, lawless region bordering Thailand and China, have not.

Shan State has been blighted by conflict and poverty since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, fragmented into fiefdoms of different warlords, drug bosses, or ethnic rebels who have been fighting each other and the army.

Four smaller ethnic groups have built powerful armies, including the Wa, Kokang, Palaung, and Rakhine.

The Wa agreed a ceasefire with the Myanmar military back in 1989 and have generally avoided armed clashes.

The other three ethnic armies, the Kokang MNDAA, Ta’ang TNLA, and Arakan Army, formed the Brotherhood Alliance. They have clashed repeatedly with the military since the coup, but always over their own territorial interests, not in support of the NUG. These groups have discreetly given sanctuary, military training, and some weapons to dissidents from other parts of Myanmar.

Under pressure from China, the Brotherhood Alliance agreed to join peace talks with the military in June this year, but these quickly broke down.

Operation 1027, launched on 27 October, has changed that, with the alliance making dramatic progress. Entire army units have surrendered without a fight, and they have taken over 100 military posts and four towns, including the border crossing at Chinshwehaw and Hsenwi. They have blown up bridges to prevent military reinforcements and surrounded the town of Laukkaing, where scam centers run by families allied to the junta are located.

The Chinese government has been pressuring the military government to shut down scam centers run by Chinese syndicates, which have become an embarrassment to Beijing. Over the past year, many Shan groups have been pressured to hand suspected individuals to the police in China, leading to over 4,000 people being sent over the border between August and October. However, families in Laukkaing balked at shutting down a business that had been generating billions of dollars a year for them.

The Brotherhood Alliance, which has been targeting the scam centres, has taken advantage of this weakness by attacking areas near Shan State. They have captured a district capital from government forces for the first time, and China has publicly called for a ceasefire. The alliance’s longer-term aim is to gain as much ground as possible in anticipation of a potential collapse of the military government, placing them in the strongest position for negotiations on a new federal structure for Myanmar.

The TNLA has long wanted to expand its control beyond the small Ta’ang self-administered zone allotted to them in the constitution. The MNDAA wants to recover control of Laukkaing and the adjacent border, which it lost in a military operation in 2009.

The Arakan Army, which has so far only been supporting the fighting in Shan State, is also monitoring the situation. If it chooses to attack the military in Rakhine State, where it has most of its forces and already controls many towns and villages, the junta would find itself dangerously overstretched.

As a TNLA spokesman told the BBC, his group no longer sees any value in negotiating with the Chinese government.

The Ta’ang, Kokang, and Wa groups in Myanmar aim to win constitutional recognition of statehood within a new federal system. Their aspirations may help end military rule in Myanmar, but their conflict with other groups in Shan State highlights the challenges in establishing a democratic future for the country. Any deal they strike would be invalidated by a future elected government.

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