The Myanmar army has shown itself as a brutal force, inflicting violence against civilians that it uses to protect amid civilian rebellion against the February 1 coup. as it is called in Burmese, there has been an increasingly escalating violence against protesters, bystanders and ordinary citizens, with indiscriminate shootings, raids, break-ins, beatings and arbitrary arrest.
Some rebels who have fought with Myanmar forces to protect their ethnic and territorial groups have denounced the army and its bloody persecution of protesters. The Three Brothers Coalition of rebel groups – the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – issued a statement in late March condemned the crackdowns and said it would support and cooperate with those waging the Spring Revolution, as the so-called local civil resistance movement, if the violence does not stop.
Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst who writes for IHS-Jane’s security and defense publications, spoke to RFA’s Myanmar Service’s Ye Kaung Myint Maung about its manpower and firepower. Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups ability to form federal army solution to the current crisis. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: How do you rate the strength and professionalism of the Myanmar military?
Anthony Davis: The Myanmar Army is undoubtedly one of the strongest militaries in ASEAN in Southeast Asia. The army alone has at least 350,000 men, followed by the air force and navy, both undergoing recent modernization. The Tatmadaw is a capable, professional, and powerful military force. There is no question about that. I mean professional in a purely military sense – unprofessional about their relationship with the people they are supposed to protect.
RFA: How is the strength of Myanmar’s national armed groups compared to the Tatmadaw, especially the four groups including the Northern Alliance (Kachin Independence Army, AA, TNLA and MNDAA)?
Anthony Davis: Compared to the military, the four members of the Northern Alliance, and if you include the Shan State Army-North State Radical Party / Shan State, are basically guerrilla organizations. They are not the usual modern military, so compared to the Tatmadaw, in numbers, they can be 15,000 or 20,000 stronger. But that is very small compared to the number and firepower that Tatmadaw can bring. The Tatmadaw is a reasonably modern army with a substantial amount of artillery, armor, maneuverability, and airpower with fixed wings. [aircraft], jet fighters, ground attack fighters and helicopters, so this is the contest of David and Goliath.
RFA: What weapons do the Northern Alliance groups own and use in battles against the Myanmar army?
Anthony Davis: The Northern Alliance groups use light weapons – assault rifles, rocket launchers, and mortars in some cases. That’s about it. These are not groups that can bring out significant firepower in terms of artillery. They don’t have air power. They have several 107 mm ground-to-ground missiles that are very useful for firing at large targets like airports or military bases from afar. But it was about the heaviest weapon they had. So these are guerrilla forces that can be very effective if we’re talking about cutting roads, cutting communications and raiding army bases. With hit and run warfare, they can be very effective.
RFA: What do you think would be an armed confrontation between the Northern Union and Tamadaw?
Anthony Davis: The weapon they are [the Tatmadaw] they will bring against the Northern Union the same weapon we have seen in campaigns against AA in Rakhine state, against KIA in Kachin state and against TNLA in northern Shan state. We are reviewing similar systems here, so we are looking at infantry that is specifically supported by air power – by Russian Mi-35 helicopters, Yak- ground attack aircraft. The new 130 Russian, the older Chinese ground attack jet dating back to the early 1990s, and the modern Chinese JF-17 [fighter] jet plane. Thus, the Tatmadaw’s main advantage in any real confrontation with the Northern Union would be less infantry and more air and artillery power in the form of 105 mm and 122 mm cannons and missile launchers. Multi-barrel fire can be very effective and very lethal against area targets. You put all of this together and we are talking about very serious firepower, so that’s a classic situation of guerrilla forces against regular army. Gorillas know the terrain, they can move more easily, and they can strike suddenly and disappear. But the conventional army has the superiority in firepower and air force.
RFA: Hypothetically, if all the armed ethnic groups in Myanmar combine their strength, manpower, and firepower to form a federal army, then their military capabilities would be like how? Is it comparable to the Tatmadaw’s forces?
Anthony Davis: My best assessment is that if you look at all of the national armed organizations in Myanmar, you’re probably looking at between 75,000 and 78,000 armed. Now, on the Tatmadaw side, the total number is probably around 350,000, so it’s significantly larger, but this is not a number game. We are not talking about a situation where all national forces are at war at once or the Tatmadaw. So if they were to face activities in different parts of Myanmar at the same time, if they had to go against AA in Rakhine at the same time as the Karen National Liberation Army in Kayin State, TNLA in Shan State and KIA In the state of Kachin, the Tatmadaw will be stretched very thinly. That would be a serious problem for them, especially given what’s happening in Myanmar’s cities in the heart of the country. Tatmadaw’s strategy has always been divided and conquered – ceasefire with one group and attacking another. Then, cease fire with that group, and go back to attack the first group. It is their preferred strategy, and often the national armed forces fall into that trap. Now in the present circumstances, where there is an uprising of people in central Myanmar, if the national armed organizations are loosely combined, it is not necessary to closely coordinate their activities but in the their areas are carrying out operations against the Tatmadaw at the same time, which will be a very, very important problem for the Tatmadaw regardless of their firepower and quantity.
Report by Ye Kaung Myint Maung to RFA’s Myanmar Service. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.