Myanmar’s nascent monsoon season is likely to give rebels fighting to oust the country’s military junta an edge as heavy rains bog down the army’s ground forces and hobble its air support for the next few months, analysts say.
Every May to October, Asia’s southwest monsoon washes across much of Myanmar, pouring most of the country’s rainfall for the year in a few sodden months. Paved roads wash out while dirt ones turn to muddy mires, making parts of the country much tougher to reach. Low and heavy cloud cover limits travel by air.
Zachary Abuza, a National War College professor in Washington who studies Southeast Asia’s insurgencies, says that means trouble for Myanmar’s large, mechanized military.
“The past few days, we’ve seen these very large armed convoys, 100 trucks, 120 trucks, carrying troops into regions. That may not be possible during the wet season. Even armor, tracked armor has limits to what it can do,” he told VOA Friday.
By contrast, he added, “the heavy rains tend to be much better for fleet-footed guerrillas.”
Stuck in the mud
Myanmar’s military has been fighting with hundreds of guerrilla groups, so-called people’s defense forces, on multiple fronts since it toppled the country’s democratically elected government early last year, sparking nationwide revolt. Some PDFs have allied with a shadow National Unity Government of ousted lawmakers, others with so-called ethnic armed organizations, ethnic minority-led armies that have been fighting with the military for autonomy along the country’s borders for decades.
Rights groups say the junta has killed at least 1,900 people since the coup and accuse the military of a scorched-earth campaign that has left thousands of families homeless or displaced. The junta disputes the casualty figure and claims to be fighting terrorists with proportionate force to restore peace and order.
Abuza said the military is doing the bulk of its fighting with about a dozen overstretched and undermanned light infantry divisions shuttling from one hotspot to the next, but will find that harder to do as the monsoon swells.
“In heavy rains their ability to quickly move troops from one front to another is really limited. Heavy rains can also really restrict the air mobility, especially helicopters,” used to ferry troops around the country, he said.
Myanmar’s grassroots resistance, propped up by the local communities they have sprung from, have few such worries, he added.
“The PDFs are local,” said Abuza. “They’re not moving around the country. They’re all based within a township, and so they’re guerrilla fighters in their backyards. They don’t have trucks, they don’t have helicopters, they don’t have armored personnel carriers. At best they’re moving around on motorbikes.”
Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher on conflict and security in Myanmar, who now lives in Thailand but has lived intermittently in Myanmar, agreed.
The rainy season “disadvantages whoever’s most reliant on the movement of people and food and other materials,” he told VOA.
“Overall, it suits the resistance forces more.”
Abuza, Jolliffe and others say the next few months could prove a watershed moment in what has become a grinding war of attrition.
In a recent Asia Times article, Bangkok-based security analyst Anthony Davis said the rains, by shrinking the military’s effective footprint, could help resistance forces pivot from months of defense to a phase of “strategic equilibrium” in which “their survival is assured, and their consolidation and development becomes the order of the day.”
Control and consolidate
Fragmented and heavily outgunned, resistance forces remain confined for the most part to the countryside. The military still holds most towns and cities.
Jolliffe said he doubts the resistance will manage to take much new territory over the next few months, even with the monsoon’s help. However, he said it will use the downturn in military raids and offensives to consolidate control of what it does hold and reassert itself where it’s been driven out.
“There are a lot of areas where the resistance forces can’t stay for a long time because if they do the Myanmar military will come through and burn everything and kill everybody who’s left,” he said. told VOA.
“The absence of that means that the resistance will be able to start visiting villages where it hasn’t spent as much time, engage with the local people, do trainings, do political awareness programs, establish its justice system ... open up schools again, potentially start facilitating primary health care services, and do things like that in areas where it wasn’t able to do those before,” he said.
That in turn, he added, will make it that much tougher for the military to take, or take back, those areas once the rains stop.
On top of that, Jolliffe said, “the Myanmar military has never been this weak probably at least since the 1950s, so there’s very little to suggest that a sudden resurgence is on the cards.”
A heavy toll
Public boycotts, tax dodgers, mass strikes and international sanctions targeting the military’s businesses are believed to be taking a heavy toll on the regime, all while a cross-country rebellion is stretching its police and soldiers thin and driving up reports of desertions and defections.
That’s not to say the junta is losing, or that it necessarily will, analysts insist.
“As brutal and awful and incompetent as the Myanmar military can be, the fact is they will always have more resources than the NUG,” Abuza said, adding that the resistance will not win, if it ever does, in a head-to-head showdown with the military.
“What they can do with their PDFs, with their affiliated EAOs, is hollow the military out through defections, through casualties, attrition, through just low morale and [military personnel] not wanting to fight,” he added.
That, Abuza said, will take more than a few rainy months.