The last time the frontier town of Ghumdhum, on the border with Myanmar, got so tense was probably August 2022. That's when a previous offensive from the Arakan Army, engaged in a fight to take control of the bordering Rakhine state of Myanmar from the military junta that unceremoniously seized control of the country in February 2021, led to an escalation that saw a Rohingya refugee camp right on the border, thus called Zero Point Camp, get bombed. One of the residents of the camp got killed.
Mortar shells, stray gunfire, military aircraft intruding into Bangladesh airspace on the pretext of target manoeuvring, were all there during that period. Eventually a ceasefire deal was struck right near the end of the year, and this had largely held, for nearly a year, till October 27, i.e. 1027.
That was the date on which an alliance of ethnic armed groups launched a coordinated offensive against regime forces in the north of Myanmar's Shan State, seizing several towns, severing important overland trade routes to China and overrunning dozens of military outposts. Dubbed Operation 1027 after the date they began, these attacks involved several thousand experienced, well-armed fighters attacking multiple locations simultaneously.
According to Richard Horsey, Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group, this new offensive quickly presented itself as the biggest battlefield challenge to the military since its February 2021 coup.
"Sensing that the regime may be at its weakest point yet, several other armed groups have gone on the march in other parts of the country, threatening to overstretch the junta's military capacity," Horsey reported for ICG in a November update. By the turn of the year, it would start to be described as the biggest threat to rule by junta in Myanmar's history as an independent nation, that has witnessed only sporadic bursts of democracy.
Operation 1027 was spearheaded by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which comprises three ethnic armed groups active in northern Shan State: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (or MNDAA, a predominantly Kokang group), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA, a mainly Ta'ang group) and the Arakan Army (or AA, which mostly focuses on Rakhine). Several resistance forces that first emerged after the coup also participated in the attacks, bringing the fighting closer to the country's second largest city, Mandalay, and ambushing reinforcements the military was sending to Shan State.
Then on November 13, the AA launched a fresh offensive in Rakhine State, breaking the informal ceasefire that had been in place for a year.
At a cabinet meeting in early November, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing vowed to undertake a counter-attack. A week later, and almost two weeks after the launch of Operation 1027, the feared general convened the first unscheduled meeting of the National Defence and Security Council since the coup began, an obvious recognition that things were getting serious. At the meeting, the regime-installed president warned that the country could splinter, but General Min Aung Hlaing, committed to "taking the required actions to counter acts of terror".
What triggered the new fighting?
Since late December/early January, several sources had started reporting on the unprecedented wave of defeats being faced by the once feared Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, all over the country. The veracity of these reports couldn't always be vouched for, given the extreme levels of control exercised over independent media inside Myanmar by the military.
Yet the fact that something monumental was happening on the other side of the border started dawning on Bangladeshis residing in the border areas, when the sound of gunfire and fighting and general violence streaming across reached sustained levels surpassing anything that occurred in 2022. Stray mortar shells started landing on Bangladesh territory with increasing regularity.
Perhaps the most astonishing development being reported from the border areas was of Myanmarese border guards at first, and then even some members of the army, fled their posts and sought shelter in Bangladesh to escape the fighting in Rakhine between Myanmar security forces and the AA. To be sure, this was unprecedented over the course of the 53 years that the international border between the two countries had been drawn and recognised.
Then on February 5, things really hit home for Bangladeshis as two people were killed after mortar shells fired from Myanmar hit an under-construction house in Jolpaitali village of Ghumdhum.
The deceased were identified as the owner of the house under construction, Hosneara Begum, 60, and Nabi Hossain, a Rohingya labourer who was working on-site. Hosneara's husband, local market trader Badshah Mia, was not home at the time. Her cousin-brother Shah Alam, said Hosneara was in the kitchen serving the Rohingya worker his lunch, when the explosion occurred.
"As we rushed there, we saw the worker's hand blown off, and he died on the spot. My sister passed away while we were taking her to the hospital," Shah Alam told reporters.
Meanwhile around half a dozen Bangladeshis had suffered bullet wounds from stray gunfire, or at least what is assumed to be stray gunfire, from Myanmar, reported the union chairman of Palongkhali.
This finally led the authorities to take some concrete steps to try and ensure the safety of Bangladeshi citizens. Almost 200 families were evacuated from Ghumdhum, although the latest reporting indicates a number of these families have now made their way back to their homes, sensing the worst of the danger has now actually moved on. Ghumdhum is said to have been pretty quiet and peaceful for the last two nights (Feb 7 and 8).
The Foreign Ministry also sent a "note verbale" to the Myanmar envoy in Dhaka, protesting the bullets and mortar shells from Myanmar landing in Bangladesh. Although it was understood to be more of a formality, with no expectations that the envoy, or perhaps even his government back home, being in a position to do much to prevent such incidents during what is now a full-blown civil war. One in which the government in Naypyitaw is being overrun in seemingly countless directions.
Is the writing on the wall?
The 2021 military takeover was met by widespread nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. But the confrontations escalated into violence after security forces used deadly force against the protesters. The many groups that make up the resistance share a determined opposition to military rule but are generally self-organised and act autonomously. An opposition National Unity Government was established by elected lawmakers who were barred from taking their seats by the 2021 army takeover. It claims to be Myanmar's legitimate government and has tried to establish a local presence nationwide, gaining the loyalty of many people.
Groups belonging to its loosely organised armed wing, the Peoples Defense Force, rarely operate outside their home communities.
The opposition to military rule depends more on allies among armed ethnic minority organisations that have long fought the central government for greater local autonomy. They have provided weapons, training and safe haven for pro-democracy fighters and sometimes carry out joint operations.
The quite stunning initial success of the 1027 operation by the Three Brotherhoods Alliance, inspired resistance forces in other parts of the country to launch their own attacks. The battlefield advancements have buoyed the fortunes of the resistance forces and represent a turning point, though victory for the opposition is still not in sight, experts say. that it inspired resistance forces in other parts of the country to launch their own attacks.
"We're certainly looking at a moment of historic Myanmar military weakness, and many of its foes are recognizing that and deciding, therefore, that now is the right time to go on the offensive. And that's why we've seen such an uptick in clashes and military operations by resistance forces across Myanmar in the last three months," Richard Horsey said in an interview.
Moe Thuzar, a senior fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, agrees.
"The writing on the wall is just getting larger for the regime," she said in an email interview. "The military has not managed to completely quell armed (or other) resistance against it in many parts of the country."
"The harsh measures it takes to assert its messages of control, whether towards the communities that the regime views as supporting the resistance movement or to its own members (officers and rank-and-file on the ground), have not done it any favours," she said.
The NUG said in a December review of military activity that the struggle has reached a critical tipping point, with the resistance transitioning "from strategic defence to strategic offensive."
Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said the military's losses could result in more suffering for civilians.
"They've lost thousands of soldiers, including to surrender and defections, hundreds of military outposts," he said. "They've lost commanding generals. They control less than half of the country. So their losses are significant, and the losses continue. The problem is that they're responding to these losses by attacking innocent people, civilians, villages with sophisticated military weapons."
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has tabulated arrests and deaths since the coup, at least 4,474 people have been killed by the security forces. Its figures do not generally include deaths of combatants and civilians in the remote rural areas that are the main combat zones, and where the number of casualties is believed to be much higher.
As a seasoned Myanmar watcher, Horsey said it's impossible to predict what may happen, even three months from now. "I think what we can say with some degree of certainty is that the civilian population, the local people, will continue to pay a heavy price for the army's seizure of power. The economy is doing very badly, jobs and employment are doing very badly. There is enormous displacement, huge humanitarian needs in the country. They're only going to increase."
And almost ominously, he warns: "The defeat of the junta or the Myanmar military is not inevitable at this point. Their backs are to the wall. They know the only way out of this for them is to keep on fighting, and they will do so with great determination because of the costs of failure."
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