An alliance of Myanmar ethnic armed groups launched coordinated attacks on the military across northern Shan State on Friday morning, according to media reports and a statement released by the groups.
The military’s 2021 putsch sparked renewed fighting with powerful, China-backed ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, home to a planned billion-dollar rail link, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure project.
The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched a “military operation” that they dubbed “Operation 1027,” the groups said in a joint statement. The alliance among the three groups is known as the “Brotherhood Alliance.”
The operation aims to block the military’s ability to send reinforcements to Shan state and target its ability to launch air strikes on the region, the groups’ statement said, without giving details. Another intention of the operation, according to the statement, is to “crush companies and the groups tied to the military council and its militias that are operating cyber scams.”
The three groups—which analysts say can call on at least 15,000 fighters between them—have clashed regularly with the military since the coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
A separate statement from the MNDAA said its fighters had closed the roads from the trade hub of Lashio to Chin Shwe Haw and Muse on the Myanmar-China border ahead of a “major offensive.”
AFP could not verify the claim.
“The whole town is full of Kokang soldiers,” a local woman in Chin Shwe Haw told Myanmar Now on Friday morning, referring to the predominant ethnicity in the MNDAA. “All the shops have been closed. They have taken over (the town).”
A rescue worker in Lashio who requested anonymity for safety reasons told AFP that the armed groups had begun shelling the military base in the town from 4am on Friday and that the military had responded with artillery fire.
Local media footage showed what it said was a destroyed toll gate on a road in Lashio.
Pro-military Telegram channels said the armed groups were attacking 12 towns or settlements across a swathe of Shan state around 62 miles across.
Those included Lashio, as well as Muse, Chin Shwe Haw and Laukkai, the latter of which lies near the border with China.
Spokespersons for the junta did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.
However, in an interview with a pro-army news outlet, regime spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun confirmed that fighting had broken out in Chin Shwe Haw, Laukkai, Kunlong, and Theinni (Hsenwi). The junta spokesperson said that the army is now able to keep control of the situation in the Chin Shwe Haw urban area.
However, he added that some “security forces” in the town had been killed by aerial bombing, and that some civilians and employees at a hotel—owned by a military-appointed former leader of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone—had been captured and were being held hostage in territory controlled by the United Wa State Army.
“We are in the process of communicating with Wa State (authorities) to release those civilians,” Zaw Min Tun said.
MNDAA forces are now occupying the area between Chin Shwe Haw and Kunlong, with the army trying to push them out, he added.
“Since Chin Shwe Haw is a border town, we are working with the bordering country, China. Of course there are some limitations on carrying out necessary security measures in a border area like this one,” Zaw Min Tun said.
He added that fighting had also broken out with allied TNLA and AA forces in at least two places east of Lashio on Friday morning.
Locals told Myanmar Now that TNLA forces had captured outposts held by the army as well as at least two others belonging to junta-trained militias near Lashio and Namhkan.
The three ethnic armed groups had “launched joint force attacks against the Myanmar Army”, Brigadier-General Tar Bhone Kyaw of the TNLA told AFP.
Earlier this month nearly 30 people were killed and dozens were wounded in a strike on a camp for displaced people in neighbouring Kachin State.
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another ethnic armed group that controls the area, blamed the junta for the attack.
Last week the junta ordered airstrikes and troop reinforcements as it tried to recover outposts it had lost in subsequent fighting with the KIA, the military and the armed groups said.
A KIA spokesman told AFP he was not sure if its fighters had joined Friday’s attacks.