An alliance of ethnic rebel groups launched a coordinated offensive in northeastern Myanmar on Friday to seize military targets in areas near the Chinese border, the groups and residents of the region said.
The Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, calling themselves the Three Brotherhood Alliance, said in a joint statement that they launched “Operation 1027” in Shan State in Burma. The offensive could become a major new front in the strife-torn Southeast Asian country.
Major coordinated attacks launched by opponents of Burma’s military government are relatively rare, in part because the military has a great advantage in weaponry and skilled manpower.
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“Our main objectives in launching this operation are multifaceted and motivated by the collective desire to safeguard the lives of civilians, to assert our right to self-defense, to maintain control of our territory and to resolutely respond to artillery attacks and to the ongoing airstrikes,” he said. by the military government, the statement said.
Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military government, acknowledged in a telephone interview with pro-military media outlet NP News that towns in northern Shan State had been attacked and that members of the forces of security had been killed in the town of Chinshwehaw, but did not give a number. Chinshwehaw is a small border town with China, about 200 miles northeast of Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city.
Rebel alliance groups, like other minority groups living in border regions, have fought for greater autonomy from Myanmar’s central government for decades.
Fighting between the military and many ethnic minority armed groups, including members of the alliance, intensified after the military seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.
Several groups, including those of the Alliance of the Three Brotherhoods, collaborated with the pro-democracy militias formed after the military takeover. These militias, collectively known as the People’s Defense Force, are now fighting the army across much of the country.
The alliance’s statement said its members are also “committed to eradicating oppressive military dictatorship, an aspiration shared by all people of Myanmar.”
Ethnic group politics in the north are complicated because the region borders China, which has good relations with Burma’s ruling generals. The alliance groups also have good relations with China and are committed to protecting foreign investment in their territories where China-backed projects are located.
Another connection is that the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or MNDAA, is the armed wing of Burma’s ethnic Chinese Kokang minority.
Details of Friday’s fighting are difficult to confirm because the area is difficult to access.
Fighting was reported in Kyaukme, Kutkai, Lashio, Laukkaing, Muse and Namhkan townships in northern Shan State, beginning with simultaneous attacks at dawn.
Media in Shan State reported that alliance forces attacked military targets, checkpoints, toll gates and police stations, and that Chinshwehaw – home to one of the five commercial border crossings officials of Burma with China – had been seized by the MNDAA. He said the army responded with aerial bombardments and shelling and that several hundred civilians were fleeing to safer areas.
Photos posted on social media apparently showed the bodies of security forces killed in the fighting, captured soldiers and damaged toll gates.
SHAN News, a local online media outlet, reported that four people, including three children, were killed and six others injured by artillery strikes in Kutkai and Namhkan townships.
A resident of Laukkaing township confirmed to the Associated Press that Chinshwehaw and the border checkpoints were seized by the MNDAA on Friday morning. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from the military and rebel groups.
A member of the Laukkaing police force told the AP that at least 17 officers, including a lieutenant, were killed and others injured after the MNDAA attacked patrol cars and checkpoints. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information.
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Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said a hotel in Chinshwehaw was attacked by the MNDAA and hotel staff and civilians were seized and taken away.
A truck driver from Lashio, a key trading post, said the town gates were closed after rebel groups attacked a toll gate just outside the town. Road traffic was also disrupted, said the truck driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears sanctions from authorities.
Online media supported by the MNDAA published a statement from the group claiming that it had captured some strategic locations and blocked roads in order to launch online fraud operations in Laukkaing.
The alliance’s statement said it was committed “to combating widespread online gambling fraud plaguing Myanmar, particularly along the China-Myanmar border.” This refers to casinos and other establishments where organized crime runs online and telephone scams, employing thousands of people, many of whom are lured from China by false job offers, but who end up working in conditions close to slavery.
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The criminal networks are run by ethnic Chinese, often in cooperation with local Burmese warlords. In recent weeks, the Chinese government has cracked down on these operations and thousands of people involved have been repatriated to China.