SIM Report: Attacks on military assets in Myanmar after announced national uprising portend to growing conflict risks

SIM REPORT: SOUTHEAST ASIA, ISSUE 14

Protesters destroyed 11 mobile phone towers belonging to military-owned telecommunications firm Mytel in the town of Budalin in Myanmar’s central Sagaing region, according to reports on 8 September.  The attacks came after the so-called National Unity Government (NUG), the country’s self-proclaimed shadow government, issued a call for a ‘defensive war’ against the military junta. NUG acting president Duwa Lashi La had earlier on 7 September urged supporters to target local military assets as part of a nationwide uprising against the junta.

Myanmar has been in a state of high social, political, and economic instability since the military staged a coup d’état in February 2021. The move triggered mass pro-democracy protests that were met with lethal and indiscriminate use of force, as well as renewed confrontations with ethnic armed organisations in border areas. Over 1,000 civilians have been killed and almost 8,000 arrested, according to local observers. Meanwhile, the number of military defections has doubled in recent months, reaching 1,500 from around 800 in June, according to the US-ASEAN Business Council in early September.

Mytel is one of four national carriers and is run as a joint venture between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and Viettel, which is owned by Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence. Mytel serves as a major income stream for the Tatmadaw. Protesters conducted the attacks on Mytel mobile phone towers, which included the use of improved explosive devices (IEDs), to disrupt the military’s revenue streams and undermine its authority. The military junta accused the NUG of attempting to draw attention to itself ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York that will consider whether the junta or shadow government should represent Myanmar. The UN’s decision will likely contribute towards whether the NUG opts to further ramp up violent tactics. The attacks also come against the backdrop of the withdrawal of Norwegian mobile carrier Telenor, which recently alleged that the military junta demanded that the firm intercept calls carried on its network.

Overall, the attacks portend to an escalation in the NUG’s tactics against the junta following months of failed attempts at dialogue and a perceived insufficient response by the international community. Further attacks on military-owned assets are likely, posing a risk to local infrastructure, particularly telecommunications. Attacks on foreign-owned assets are unlikely, except for Chinese-owned businesses such as those involved in Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Protesters have threatened attacks on the Sino-Myanmar pipelines, for instance. Attacks on other foreign-owned oil and gas operations allegedly financing the military junta are less likely but cannot be ruled out. Collateral damage could harm staff in the vicinity of such attacks. Escalating tactics heighten the potential for a larger-scale conflict between the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the NUG’s armed wing, and the Tatmadaw in the short-to-medium term (<3-6 months) outlook.

Confrontations are likely to intensify around the trial of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on corruption charges beginning on 1 October, particularly as rulings against the former state counsellor will likely be deemed incommensurate. Should fighting between the PDF and Tatmadaw escalate, then it is likely that there will also be heightened pressure on oil and gas firms accused of financially sustaining the military junta to fully sever ties. Companies allegedly include French firm Total and American firm Chevron. More severe sanctions and an arms embargo would also be probable outcomes aimed towards a swift resolution to a conflict.

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