Military manpower has become a critical factor for Myanmar’s junta
6 Dec 2023|

Victories by Myanmar’s ethnic insurgents over the past three months have resulted in a strategic shift in the civil war, and in the balance of power in Myanmar. Manpower is a key factor in an existential conflict.

 Myanmar’s generals have always known that the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, could never maintain a physical presence throughout the entire country. To exercise control, they counted on a divided opposition, superior intelligence and mobile strike forces. They also relied on a large element of bluff. Operation 1027, launched in northern Myanmar in October by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA), and later joined by several other ethnic armed organisations (EAO) and militias, has effectively called that bluff.

Myanmar is the largest state in mainland Southeast Asia, covering 676,578 square kilometres. Much of it consists of rugged mountains, dense forests and major waterways. Vast tracts of land, mainly around the country’s borders, are thinly inhabited, or visited only by small bands of hunters, smugglers and refugees. Even now, after a major road building program begun in 2004, there are barely 150,000 kilometres of roads, of which only 40% are paved.

These harsh geographical realities have posed major challenges to central governments in Myanmar throughout history. Such difficulties have been compounded even further for the Tatmadaw which, ever since the 1962 military coup, has acted as an army of occupation, particularly in those peripheral areas dominated by the country’s many ethnic minorities.

No-one has ever determined the precise number of men and women in the Tatmadaw, but until the late 1980s it was less than 200,000 strong. This meant that large parts of the country had no permanent military presence and many others saw only an occasional patrol to show the flag. Even after a massive expansion of the Tatmadaw in the 1990s, perhaps to 400,000, there were still not enough troops to dominate the entire country.

Under the quasi-civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, personnel numbers were reduced, ostensibly to create a more professional ‘standard’ army. Since the February 2021 coup manpower levels have fallen even further, due to a rash of desertions, ‘defections’ to the opposition, battlefield casualties, recruitment shortfalls and other problems. It was estimated in May 2023 that the Tatmadaw was about 150,000 strong, of which only 70,000 were front line troops.

Most standard combat units have been undermanned, with some battalions reportedly down from the gazetted 750 men to less than 150. One so-called ‘battalion’ that surrendered to the TBA after the launch of Operation 1027 consisted of 127 soldiers. On another occasion, a Tatmadaw battalion that surrendered to the insurgents reportedly had only 41 men (although this apparently did not include the garrison’s casualties).

Even before the coup, one result of these manpower shortages was the difficulty of exerting coercive power throughout the country. Mobile units such as the 10 ‘elite’ light infantry divisions were kept up to strength and viewed as rapid reaction forces deployed to trouble spots as required. They were used to quell civil unrest beyond the capabilities of the police force and, as in the case of the Rohingyas in 2016-17, to conduct ‘clearance operations’.

Also, during the 1990s and early 2000s, many military bases, airfields and other facilities were built or expanded to manage the larger numbers of troops, and the influx of arms and equipment from abroad. They were located strategically around the country, but most were in, or close to, the ethnic Bamar-dominated heartland, where they could be more easily maintained and defended against hostile EAOs based in the country’s periphery.

Smaller outposts and strongholds were established closer to the combat zones. They were thus more vulnerable to attack. Like the police stations that existed in all major towns and villages in Myanmar, many were built as much to establish a token Tatmadaw presence as to support operations. Even the more heavily fortified camps did not have the manpower or heavy weapons to hold off a concerted attack by superior numbers of well-armed insurgents.

In this regard, it is misleading for opposition spokesmen to claim that 200 Tatmadaw ‘bases’ have been overrun since last October. This is not to take anything away from the TBA and its allies since the launch of Operation 1027. At least four major bases and several large towns have fallen to the insurgents. Critical land communications between Myanmar and China have been cut. Large quantities of small arms and ammunition have been captured.

At the same time, other EAOs, notably the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), but also the Chin National Army (CNA) and Karenni Army (KA), have seized the opportunity to launch operations in other parts of the country against a distracted and over-stretched Tatmadaw. There have also been opportunistic attacks against the junta by militia groups, including the shadow National Unity Government’s (NUG) People’s Defence Forces (PDF), often in conjunction with the EAOs.

This campaign is one of the Tatmadaw’s recurring nightmares come true. The generals know how thinly spread their troops are, and how difficult it is to fight more than one major battle at the same time. The EAOs opposing them are still divided at the political level, but they have managed to establish an unprecedented level of military cooperation. This has permitted them to coordinate attacks in force against multiple Tatmadaw positions, with dramatic results.

The EAO victories over the past three months have resulted in a strategic shift in the civil war, and in the balance of power in Myanmar. In responding, the junta faces many complex challenges, and difficult decisions. A key factor remains the question of available manpower.

It has long been the mantra of military experts around the world that to defeat an insurgency the defending forces require a ratio of ten to one, or even 15 to one, over the insurgents. No fixed ratio can guarantee success, but numbers do matter. In this regard, the junta clearly has nothing like the forces needed to wage an effective war on all fronts against the many disparate groups now arrayed against it.

Let’s assume, that there are about 45-50,000 combat soldiers in the TBA. The KIA and KNLA together number another 20,000 seasoned combatants. Add the reported 1,000 in the KA and another 1,500 in the CNA, and the total matches the likely number of the Tatmadaw’s front line troops. There are also believed to be some 65,000 in the PDF and 30,000 in local defence forces.

These numbers are estimates only. In some cases, they are informed guesses. A few respected Myanmar-watchers have put the total number of armed soldiers in all the EAOs at around 80,000. Whatever figures are accepted, however, it is clear that the Tatmadaw is in no position to mount the kind of concerted nation-wide campaign of which it so often speaks, let alone dominate the national battle space.

Even if army veterans, ad hoc militias, service family members and sundry other supporters were included, the junta could not marshal anything like the number of people—trained or untrained—required for a major counter-offensive. If it deploys its mobile troops to meet specific threats, then other areas are left badly exposed. The use of air power, armour and artillery gives the junta certain advantages, but ultimately only troops on the ground can win back territory and exert its will over the population.

One option canvassed by some respected Myanmar-watchers is for the junta to pull its forces back to the heavily populated and economically important heartland, where it can more easily regroup. That would be a hard decision for it to take, given the generals’ worldview and commitment to Myanmar’s unity, but it may be necessary for them to get through the latest crisis. It would not be the first time a Myanmar government has faced such a decision.

Critical to the resolution of all these problems will be the continuing cohesion and loyalty of the armed forces, for they are essential for the junta’s survival. There are internal tensions, and the Tatmadaw’s morale is currently low, for obvious reasons. To date, however, there have been no signs of a serious breakdown in discipline, a mutiny by a major combat unit, or irreconcilable differences between elements of the state’s coercive apparatus, of a kind that might spell the junta’s downfall.

The latest multi-faceted campaign constitutes the most significant challenge to the junta since it seized power three years ago. Indeed, it may be the most dangerous situation faced by any central government in Myanmar since the country regained its independence in 1948. In activist social media posts, there is a sense of optimism, if not an element of triumphalism. Some pundits confidently predict the disintegration of the country. Others  talk about the need to prepare for a post-junta government, possibly even UN intervention.

However, it is too early to write off the generals. As the US intelligence community has observed, for them this is an existential struggle. They have nowhere else to go. The junta has ruled out any negotiated settlement and can be expected to fight to the bitter end. The EAOs and NUG, too, have stated that total military victory is the only acceptable outcome. There is likely to be a lot more fighting and a lot more suffering before this civil war is concluded.