The Age of Urban Insurgency in Myanmar?

It is impossible to predict where urban resistance to military rule will head, but the justness of operating in towns and cities is eroded when ordinary people suffer, David Scott Mathieson writes

Visitors to Yangon two years after the 2021 coup almost generally observe that the situation has “returned to normal” and that while economic distress and a general sullenness of the population seems evident, it is easy to assume there is no civil war raging across Myanmar.

And yet, attacks against the military council in main urban areas persist, with regular bombings and targeted killings of military personnel and their perceived supporters. Taken over a short time period, it appears as if urban attacks are fragmented, episodic, and often prone to networks being rolled up by security forces. Following these incidents, there is a period of uneasy calm, then further attacks spike.

How much has Myanmar entered an age of urban insurgency, unparalleled in its long history of civil war?

The occurrence of 12 explosions in one night on July 4 in Yangon challenges the questionable notion that things have returned to “normal,” as seemingly coordinated attacks hit six targets in Hlaing Thayar, Bahan, and South Okkalapa townships that included police stations, courts and checkpoints, although minimal casualties were recorded.

A list of incidents taken over a two-year time frame in multiple locations would indicate that urban insurgency has been routine but unpredictable and undulating, reflecting a pendulum of attacks by multiple cells, often acting independently but some operating with support from the National Unity Government (NUG). Their strikes are met by eventual security force interdiction and arrests.

The rolling up of other networks usually follows, through a combination of torture and interrogation, phone intercepts and surveillance technology and the widespread use of informants. Extensive use of the messaging app Telegram, or “the snitch channel,” as a powerful Washington Post opinion piece recently called it, allows the military and its supporters to identify and target potential urban insurgents, their backers, and, in some cases, their family members.

The urban dimension of anti-authoritarian resistance has distinct challenges over the more “conventional” guerrilla armed resistance raging in multiple locations in the countryside, where the majority of warfare in Myanmar occurs and also where whole villages have been razed by the junta’s atrocity pacification campaigns, or “clearance operations.”

Yet just as relative novices become adept with practice, the urban guerrillas who can learn from mistakes and successes in the long run will bedevil the security forces who must adopt a combination of police techniques and technology as much as brute force.

Assassinations and urban resistance cells

Recent high level assassinations indicate that the urban dimension of anti-military resistance is not over, and seemingly involves independent formations and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) aligned with the NUG. In recent months, assassinations have included Ye Khine, the head of security at Yangon International Airport by the Urban Owls cell, and Sai Kyaw Thu, the deputy chair of the Union Election Commission and a former senior military officer, by the For the Yangon group.

The killing of a prominent pro-military singer is instructive of the retaliatory nature of urban warfare. Lily Naing Kyaw was shot at close range in her car on May 30, and died in a military hospital a week later. The alleged assassin from the Yangon-based Special Task Force, Kaung Zarni Hein, was arrested soon after the incident; his mother and sister were killed at their home in the outskirts of the city that evening.

Reprisal killings are also commonplace. The murder of U Thant Myint in Yangon’s Dawbon Township in early June was almost certainly because his brother, the prominent Rohingya activist U Aung Kyaw Moe, was an advisor to the NUG (now a deputy minister).

There is also the Yangon Region People’s Brigade (YRPB) established in late April 2022, reportedly a coalition of 16 NUG-aligned resistance cells. On August 7 that year, the YRPB held an online press conference announcing a three-wave urban resistance strategy to seize total control of Yangon: Rose Wave would be a bombing attack; Eagle Wave an unspecified escalation of attacks; and Dragon Wave, the ostensible liberation of the commercial capital. However, the YRPB seems to have had little notable success in the first year of its liberation campaign.

In June 2023, the NUG claimed to have deployed a unit of specially trained urban operators in Yangon, designated PDF 5101.

“After regiments like this have been established, we will be able to organise stronger, more united and more traditional battles that can formulate more strategic attacks at the military junta,” an official with the NUG’s Ministry of Defence told Radio Free Asia’s Burmese Service.

Yet in the opaque world of the underground, it is almost impossible to separate artifice and misinformation from reality and establish any clear schematic of cells—which doesn’t inhibit the febrile imagination of the Office of Military Affairs Security from trying.

In mid-July the NUG’s Southern Command Special Operations Force listed on social media its primary accomplishments over the past two years, which included a mix of urban operations, including notable “drive-by shootings” captured on camera, and field activities in Karen and Mon states.

Influence without permanent presence

It is tempting to downplay the spectre of urban warfare as much less like “conventional urban warfare” battles such as Fallujah, Marawi, Mosul or recently in Jenin, and likely more reminiscent of a series of single events in a protracted conflict such as the long “Troubles” in Belfast. But then consider the images of the razing of the Chin State town of Thantlang, targeted by the military with arson attacks more than 30 times and almost completely depopulated by late 2021: that was urban terror perpetrated by the Myanmar army.

Perhaps analysis of the urban dimensions of civil war needs to expand the typologies of insurgency and resistance in broader settings of the built environment. It is tempting to think of urban insurgency just in terms of attacks in Yangon and Mandalay, but we need to consider the influence of insurgents within urban centres even if they do not establish a permanent presence or visible and legible “administration.”

Consider that the Arakan Army may not “control” the state capital Sittwe, but has infiltrated the urban space to such an extent that it can influence behaviour and “regulate” business and people’s movements and even administer ‘justice.’ Consider too that there have been two high-level assassinations of senior Arakan Liberation Army/Party officials in central Sittwe: chief of staff Gen Khaing Soe Mya and two others in January, and vice chair Khaing Ni Yaung and two deputies in July.

In a similar way, visuals of soldiers from the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) moving through the outskirts of Lashio in northern Shan State to collect information on forced recruitment and taxation indicates how relatively secure insurgents can roam so close to a major military base: the junta’s Northeastern Command is just a few kilometres away. There has also been renewed fighting between the TNLA and regime forces around Muse, and between Muse and Namkham: noticeably close to and in major border towns.

But urban resistance comes in many forms, including seemingly inexhaustible innovation, as seen in the ‘8888’ umbrella series of portraits in 2022, which commemorated the August 1988 uprising, and recently the t-shirts of four people displaying “7-7-62-Don’t Forget. The latter memorialised the July 7, 1962 student strike against the military coup carried out in March of that year. There may have been a reduction in these performances, but it would be premature to herald their end.

Political vs criminal

One of the frustrating factors in any analysis of urban warfare is trying to separate the “political” from the “criminal” and the multiple permutations of organised violence that are accompanied by a range of elements and propulsions. If an ethnic armed organisation bombs a business because its routine taxation fails to materialise, is that part of a political project or a criminalised racket? These distinctions break down not just in the fog of war but the fog of necessary revolutionary fundraising. In a general sense, this is all redolent of Charles Tilly’s famous dictum of “war making and state making as organised crime.”

The military council and the military writ large is an organised crime syndicate with a multiple extractive portfolio. The resistance is following suit, and has been in multiple forms for decades.

Killings over nearly two years by the Twantay Urban Guerrilla unit, for example, appear to have blended as much robbery as fighting, and allegedly included executions of unarmed civilians. The military newspaper Myawady Daily publishes graphic photos of victims, whereas the English language junta mouthpiece Global New Light of Myanmar restricts itself to mug shots of “terrorists.” How many formations of ostensible anti-junta urban cells are using civil war as a front for criminal sadism? It is very difficult to discern at times. The recent bombings outside the Golden Hill Hotel and a gold shop in Lashio also raise questions of commercial or political motives behind incidents: and were used by authorities to arrest suspected Civil Disobedience Movement participants anyway.

There are a number of interlocking data points, big and seemingly small, that suggest challenges to stemming urban and peri-urban insurgency remain. Assuming its veracity, the leaked minutes from a late-December 2022 counterterrorism committee meeting was bleakly frank over the challenges of urban insurgency. It claimed that there were 50 PDFs operating in Mandalay and that despite CCTV units being fitted throughout the city, frequent power outages made this surveillance unreliable. The notes also pointed to resistance groups using unregistered vehicles and drones, and said its own Myanmar army troops required more bulletproof vests, fuel, and signal jamming equipment.

Shaping urban security dynamics

Several townships around Yangon’s periphery have issued various bans on motorcycle use after attacks on local officials or security forces, including taking passengers Most of Yangon south of 9-Mile Road has been motorbike-free for decades, but they are prevalent in almost every other urban centre in the country, and perfect for drive-by assassinations and escape and evasion.

On June 12, the counterterrorism committee issued a notification that any property rented to individuals who are then charged with “terrorist” offences would be seized as state property.

“(R)enting out houses or apartments to individuals associated with terrorist organizations is viewed as aiding and abetting terrorism, tantamount to engaging in violent acts akin to terrorists themselves,” it said. This is designed to further intimidate landlords, and suggests that despite immense difficulties of urban guerrilla groups finding safe houses, particularly in Yangon, cells maintain the ability to stay clandestine and conduct violent attacks.

In mid-2023 the Yangon regional military authorities announced a project to collect “biometric information” for identity registration in 45 townships, and split residents into six targeted groups.

“It will be conducted by dividing civil servants and their family members, students aged 10 years and above, prisoners in jails and prisons, private banking and financial services, workers in factories and workshops, nuns, monks, and members of other religious orders,” the junta reported, describing a development that would augment counter-insurgent capacity to trace suspects.

Demonstrating the pendulum of intelligence and counter-intelligence capability, in January this year, two military intelligence agents, a major and a sergeant, were ambushed and killed by the PDF on the outskirts of Bago. Two captured urban resistance cell members who had been allegedly “turned” were also killed. The information for the operation came from the Yangon Urban Guerrillas Association, indicating the level of cooperation of which the armed groups in question are capable.

Increased attacks on military, police or militia checkpoints along major arterial highways could be one possible strategy of shaping urban security dynamics, trade fluctuations, and the security of people moving between urban areas. The security dynamics of checkpoints are an often overlooked element of conflict studies, but if a range of anti-junts actors can influence the predictability of the flow of goods and people into and out of urban areas, they exert a form of remote control. Resistance forces in the Southeast have issued travel warnings to civilians in Mon State to avoid travel between 6pm and 6am. The destruction of a notorious checkpoint outside Hpa-an in a July 31 explosion dramatically underscores this dynamic.

Attempting to influence the routes into and outside of towns and cities is what the counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen in his seminal study Out of the Mountains refers to as—borrowing from the French historian Bernard B. Fall—“competitive control” amongst several actors, using a continuum of normative, persuasive, administrative and eventually to coercive control.

Such arrangements, lived realities, will not be strange to anyone in the past decades who have travelled between Lashio and Muse, or Myawaddy and Hpa-an, but are now becoming commonplace in Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay, and for any traffic along the Mawlamyine-Ye-Dawei highway where resistance traffic checks are now routine.

The use of car bombs to attack urban areas and checkpoints, with seemingly greater yield and sophistication, indicates another new direction. Car bombs are “a poor man’s air force” as Mike Davis wrote in Buda’s Wagon-A Brief History of the Car Bomb, and could indicate a measure of counter-aerial bombardment and an answer to heavy artillery use by the military council.

Smoke rises from an explosion in Yangon’s Lanmadaw Township on November 10, 2021, one of at least five blasts that day, leading to an hours-long military lockdown (EPA-EFE/STRINGER)

Issuing a long-term challenge to military rule

Amongst a host of pre-coup grievances, multiple communities had been increasingly marginalised by top-down urbanisation, increased light industrialisation, widening labour inequalities, a dearth of basic services and social support, and gentrification. This could provide equal motivation for armed mobilisation and resistance formation than purely anti-junta or pro-Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sentiments. Informal settlements or workers, if organised into resistance cells, could be as serious, if not more, a challenge to the central repressive state of urban and peri-urban spaces as NUG-affiliated PDFs: some would say a far more mortal challenge to military rule in the long term.

A fusion of social injustice, land confiscation or forced relocation, labour mobilization and animus towards abusive security forces and corrupt bureaucrats along with intense mistrust towards landed and business classes and foreign (especially Chinese) factory owners could drive armed alliance-building that transcends current PDF motivations into a whole new form, if it isn’t occurring already, of people’s revolutionary forces.

As Sai Latt recently wrote, the “interim period” of the revolution will continue after any ostensible “victory” over the military because of a multitude of revolutionary impulses to transform Myanmar society, and urban grievances will be a key factor and have been for a very long time.

Reaching back to Myanmar’s colonial legacy, Elizabeth Rhoads powerfully established the intricate links between forced evictions and state control in Yangon as being similar to the forms in which the military sees rural geographies, land and communities as spaces of control and commercialisation, and that marginalising ethnic and religious minorities establishes contested frontiers not just in the hinterlands but within cities.

In a post-coup urban setting, how much is the junta compelled to employ its own formulation of “lethal theory,” as was termed by British-Israeli architect and scholar Eyal Weizman. Weizman cast his analysis in the most extreme form of urban warfare in the Occupied Settlements and Israeli defence forces, when the military operated inside and through buildings to hunt insurgents and drive them onto the streets to kill them: tactics supposedly gleaned from dense academic political theory. The Myanmar military might see its entire approach to war as unremitting lethality, but it must also recognise it requires new tactics to combat urban insurgency and see city terrain and opponents therein as markedly distinct from the jungle.

The direction of urban insurgency is impossible to forecast. But it didn’t stop Serge Pun, the favored crony of many Westerners during the “transition,” predicting recently that the military bastion of Naypyitaw would not be targeted by the resistance. This could be wishful thinking or famous last words. Or it could be that the shady entrepreneur is paying resistance forces for non-targeting rights, a not-unheard-of phenomenon in business of paying ethnic armed organisations for “protection” for many years.

Or more likely it reflects the sheer impossibility of predicting where the urban dimension of resistance to military rule will head. But one urgent element must be confronted, and that is the ethics of targeted killings, bombings and all attacks close to civilians. The justness of operating in towns and cities is eroded when ordinary people suffer. Or when dalans—accused informants—are murdered because it is easy. A soft target is no path to victory.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar

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