Out Of The Hills: The War Is Coming To Myanmar’s Cities – Analysis


By Zachary Abuza

Operation 1027, launched on Oct. 27 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, has led to coordinated attacks throughout Myanmar and seen the fall of 20 towns and over 300 military posts. But violence is now starting to spread to the cities, a strategic tipping point.

Since that offensive against the military in northern Shan state by the alliance – the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – members and others are expanding the battle front against the military junta.

In the east, Karenni forces launched Operation 1111 and now control nearly 80% of Kayah state. They are now fighting in the capital Loikaw

In western Myanmar, the Arakan Army ended its cease-fire in Rakhine state, and have taken major bases, while Chin forces have made significant inroads along the Indian border and claim to have established civil administration in 70% of the state. 

The MNDAA has begun its assault on Laukkaing, the capital of the Kokang region. 

Karen forces in Kayin State have taken over parts of the main road to the Thai border, greatly restricting border trade. 

On Dec. 3, the opposition National Unity Government announced the establishment of civil administration in Kawlin town in the war-torn Sagaing region, the first township capital to fall to the opposition.

The military that took power in a Feb. 2021 coup is increasingly constrained to a diminishing share of the Bamar heartland. But even that is starting to slip away.

On Dec. 3, the KNLA and local PDFs took over Mone, the first town to fall in Bago state. Some 17 soldiers surrendered with their weapons. More importantly, the opposition is getting within striking distance of Highway 1 that connects Yangon and Naypyidaw.

Military escalation

The military has responded with an escalation in the number of long-range artillery and aerial bombing, both of which have resulted in increased civilian casualties. On Dec. 3, the NUG’s Ministry of Human Rights released details on SAC attacks on civilians, documenting 84 airstrikes, and 112 artillery strikes that resulted in the death of 244 civilians.

Such attacks will continue as the military has neither sufficient number of troops to retake lost territory, nor sufficient means to move troops. One cannot control territory from the air. 

In a brief moment of candor, Min Aung Hlaing acknowledged some battlefield setbacks, blaming foreign interference. 

While there have been significant opposition gains in the countryside, within the cocoons of Mandalay and Yangon, the military regime has gone to great lengths to project a sense of normalcy, so that the population will acquiesce to military rule. Restaurants and bars are open, life goes on.

Reports from the ground suggest that the military is building up its defenses in Naypyidaw, Yangon, and Mandalay, with increasing shows of force and patrols of armored vehicles.

Naypyidaw is already a fortress city that will be hard to attack. But the recent capture of heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems should give opposition forces the ability to now target the city. 

Likewise, greater proximity will allow the small drones and quadcopters that the opposition has used to drop mortar shells the ability to strike targets. Even symbolic strikes in Naypyidaw would sew fear amongst regime loyalists, undermine morale, and sap the will to resist.

More urban attacks

That is now changing, with more attacks by opposition People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) in the cities in the past month. 

The most notable recent attack was the Dec. 1 assassination of the chairman of the pro-military New National Democracy Party, Than Tun. He had been a National League for Democracy (NLD) member before defecting to a pro-military party that was established by a senior advisor to the State Administrative Council (SAC). the junta’s formal name.

These assassinations are meant to convey good operational intelligence on the part of the PDFs, and at the same time, serve as a warning that if they can hit someone so close to the SAC, then the military is unable to protect anyone. 

There have been many assassinations in the past, including the assassination of the chief financial officer of the military owned telecom firm MyTel, and an attack on the current governor of the Central Bank of Myanmar, which wounded her.

But the military understands the importance of maintaining a sense of security in the cities. There’s always been violence in the borderlands, but once violence hit Yangon and Mandalay, people questioned the military’s hold on power. 

To that end, they began deploying Chinese-made CCTV cameras with artificial intelligence. Urban guerrilla networks that were active in 2022, were systematically taken apart. The arrest and torture of one member, often led to the rest of entire cells.

This means that the return of urban guerrillas is an important milestone that demonstrates both a decline in the military’s control over the cities, and the growing confidence of the PDFs to conduct operations.

Yangon sees PDF attacks

There has been a string of attacks in greater Yangon in the past few weeks. A PDF attacked soldiers guarding the state-owned Electric Power Cooperation Department in both North Okkalapa and South Okkalapa Townships on Nov. 23 and 24, respectively. 

On Nov. 29, PDFs attacked a compound of the military-owned conglomerate, Myanma Economic Holdings Ltd, in Yangon’s Insein Township. This was an important symbolic target, as the conglomerate is one of the most important sources of revenue for the military.

On Nov. 30, local PDFs used drones to drop bombs on a police station and two military posts in Yangon, while PDFs in North Okkalapa Township bombed forces encamped at a local high school. There have been bombings, more recently, in Dagon township.

PDFs set off two bombs at a police post in Yangon’s Thingangyun township on  Dec. 4. 

The military has responded to these attacks, with a series of raids and arrests of youth. RFA has reported that some 50 youth had been abducted from Yangon townships in recent weeks.

In short, the war is coming to the cities. With each week, there will be more assassinations, more drone attacks, and more bombings that target security forces and symbols of military rule. 

This will shatter any false pretense that the military is still in control and empower more civil disobedience. It’s no wonder that Min Aung Hlaing has suddenly called for a political solution, before it all comes crashing down.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or Radio Free Asia.


Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press. Content used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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