In one of their most audacious insurgent operations in recent years, ethnic minority rebels in northeast Myanmar launched a wave of surprise attacks including on the nation’s premier military academy and main trade artery with China.

The lightning offensive by the factions of the so-called Northern Alliance-Burma (NAB) opened a potentially crucial northern front in a war driven by minority demands for federal autonomy that since the beginning of the year has already swept the western coastal state of Rakhine.

Unfolding in the pre-dawn hours of August 15, rebel assaults targeted multiple points in Nawng Khio township of Shan state on the main highway linking the city of Mandalay to the town of Muse on the Chinese border. Nawng Khio is close to the historic colonial-era Goteik railway viaduct.

Joining forces for the offensive were rebel troops from three NAB factions – the Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) based in the Kokang region, and the Rakhine Arakan Army (AA), which continues to field forces in northern Myanmar even as its main operational focus has shifted to its home state on the western coast.

In Nawng Khio the heaviest assault overran a post manned by police and army at the Goke Twin bridge, reportedly killing 10 security force personnel, severely wounding three others and damaging the bridge. As other points along the highway including a toll gate and smaller security posts came under attack the total casualty toll rose to at least 15 dead.

Killed security forces in the compound of the Gote Twin police station in Shan state on August 15, 2019, after it was attacked by ethnic rebel groups. Photo: AFP/Stringer

No less strikingly, the rebels also fired rockets at the Defense Services Technical Academy (DSTA) on the edge of the garrison town of Pyin Oo Lwin, earlier known as Maymyo, which sits on the rim of the Shan plateau overlooking Mandalay.

The DSTA, which trains military, or Tatmadaw, personnel in cyber operations and signals intelligence, is a part of the Defense Services Academy (DSA) complex at Pyin Oo Lwin, the Myanmar armed forces’ equivalent of West Point.

According to official sources, one civilian was killed and a soldier wounded in an attack which was powerfully symbolic, striking both at one of the military’s most prestigious institutions and the cradle of its officer corps, while at the same time bringing the ethnic conflict into territory close to the country’s second largest city.

The DSTA attack also underscored the manner in which 107mm surface-to-surface rockets, apparently purchased by the NAB from the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) ethnic army, are changing the complexion of insurgency in Myanmar.

The unguided free-flight missiles, which can be simply launched leaning against sandbags, permit stand-off attacks on area targets from a distance of up to eight kilometers. They have been used repeatedly this year by the AA in attacks from much closer distances on Myanmar Navy vessels operating on rivers in Rakhine state. Following the Pyin Oo Lwin attack, as many as six were found after sunrise ranged against targets but not fired.

Unfired rockets abandoned by insurgents outside of Pyin Oo Lwin, August 15, 2019. Photo: Twitter/7 Day News

According to TNLA commander Tar Phone Kyaw, quoted by Myanmar’s Irrawaddy online magazine, the joint attacks were launched as a “counter-offensive” in response to Tatmadaw operations in two widely separated regions.

Since January, the military has been battling to contain an AA insurgency in Rakhine that this year has spread across the north of the state and now, despite the onset of the monsoon season, is moving into central regions.

In northeastern Shan state, meanwhile, the Tatmadaw has struck at alliance forces, particularly in Kutkai township north of the city of Lashio, despite a unilateral ceasefire covering much of the north declared last December and not due to expire until August 31.

“We asked them to stop their military offensive in Rakhine. But they did not stop it,” the TNLA commander was quoted as saying. “We asked them to stop their offensive into our area, but they keep doing it. Therefore, we had to launch a counter-offensive.”

There appears little doubt that the new northern offensive has been launched at least partly to relieve pressure on AA main forces currently under heavy attack from an unprecedented concentration of at least five Tatmadaw mobile assault divisions rotated into Rakhine state and the adjacent region of Chin state.

Since last December and January, when AA-Tatmadaw fighting erupted in Rakhine near the Bangladesh border, hostilities have escalated dramatically with several hundred fatalities on both sides and somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 civilians displaced.

Some reports have suggested that in recent weeks Tatmadaw ground troops, backed by airstrikes and naval assets, have succeeded at least partly in pushing the AA onto the defensive and forcing it to disperse its forces.

Arakan Army fighters in 2018 in a Youtube screen grab. Photo: Youtube
Arakan Army fighters in a promotional video in 2018. Photo: YouTube screen grab.

This has had the effect of opening up new fronts in the central Rakhine township of Myebon and Ann, close to the deep-sea port planned at Kyaukphyu, a vital hub at the ocean end of the projected China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, Beijing’s master-plan for building economic connectivity between southwestern China and the Indian Ocean region.

At the height of the dry season fighting in Rakhine in March, the TNLA – which fields an estimated 6,000 guerrillas across northern townships of Shan state – issued a warning to the Tatmadaw that continued operations against its AA ally in Rakhine would result in a TLNA response.

While it was several months in the making, the latest offensive has evidently sought, albeit perhaps belatedly, to make good on that threat.

At the same time, the offensive has raised major questions about the position of the Northern Alliance’s fourth faction, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). One of Myanmar’s largest ethnic factions with an estimated 8,000 – 9,000 trained fighters under arms in the country’s north, the KIA played a key role in training, mentoring and equipping the AA between 2009 and 2015.

But despite operating three brigades in northern Shan state in addition to the bulk of its forces in Kachin state, the KIA was conspicuously missing from the latest alliance offensive. Throughout the first half of the year, it also remained notably inactive across its Kachin state areas of strength as its smaller AA ally tied down large numbers of Tatmadaw forces in Rakhine.

Armed government troops cross a bomb-damaged bridge near Gote Twin police station in Shan state on August 15, 2019, after it was attacked by ethnic rebel groups. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Kachin spokesmen have yet to comment on the Rakhine fighting. As some critics see it, however, the KIA is today run by a generation of ageing leaders with comfortable economic and political investments in a no-peace no-war status quo with the Tatmadaw, and may prefer to wait out the current conflict while leaving the heavy-lifting to its allies.

As the dry season nears in November, much will depend on the extent to which the Northern Alliance can succeed on its newly opened northern front in over-stretching Tatmadaw forces already under heavy pressure as they struggle to beat down the Rakhine revolt.

Operating across the wide arc of northern Shan state hill-country between Pyin Oo Lwin in the west and Kokang in the east, the TNLA and its far smaller MNDAA and AA allies are geographically well-placed to tie down significant Tatmadaw forces with hit-and-run guerrilla strikes like those seen on August 15.

Whether they are logistically and organizationally ready for the level of protracted hostilities the AA now face in Rakhine state is another matter.

In the coming months, it is precisely that question which will bring into sharp focus the position of the powerful but apparently reluctant KIA. At a potentially pivotal juncture in Myanmar’s decades-long civil war, it remains unclear whether the Kachin will join the wider fray or continue to watch from the sidelines.