Bangkok - Two years after Myanmar's military toppled a democratically elected government, analysts say the country remains trapped in a deadly battle of attrition between the ruling junta and resistance forces that will only get bloodier ahead of planned elections this year.
The junta still fails to control wide swaths of hinterland and continues to come under heavy attack from a patchwork or armed groups across the country of 54 million people. The United Nations says over 1.2 million have been displaced by fighting since the coup, a number still growing by tens of thousands each month.
Despite the chaos, analysts expect the junta to press ahead with plans to hold national elections by August in order to transfer power to a civilian government. The junta's opponents say any election run by the regime will be rigged and yield a civilian government in name only.
"There will be no military solution, and a political resolution seems very far off," Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst and senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, said of the conflict.
"That means continued rule of a military or military-linked government that the people do not recognize [or] legitimate and hate, and that government therefore having to use authoritarian methods to enforce its rule," he added. "That's a pretty depressing prospect, but that is the prospect that stretches out in the next year."
Since the military's February 2021 coup, hundreds of local militias dubbed people's defense forces, or PDFs, have sprung up across the country to resist the military's rule.
Many have aligned with the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration in exile and hiding that is attempting to topple the junta, and with some of the ethnic armed groups that have been fighting the military for decades for control over areas where minorities make up most of the population.
A traditional artist group performs during a ceremony marking Myanmar's 75th anniversary of Independence Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
Reports on the fighting compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an international non-profit, show little sign of a letup in the violence.
Contest and control
The project's data show over 770 battles and more than 860 explosions or remote attacks in the last three months of 2022. The most recent data analyzed by the UK's International Institute for Strategic Studies show some 500 attacks or armed clashes in October alone, about as many as the same month last year.
The institute's data mapping shows much of the fighting still concentrated in Myanmar's dry zone, stretching north and west from the central Mandalay region into Magwe and Sagaing. It also shows pockets of heavy fighting in southern Kachin and northern Shan states, in Myanmar's northeast, and down along the country's eastern border with Thailand.
"The resistance has become better capable to contest the junta's control," said Ye Myo Hein, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., who heads the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, a Myanmar think tank.
The greater challenge for the resistance, he added, is holding and controlling what it contests, especially in urban areas, which the junta still commands.
"Although they extend the fighting territory and also their war zones ... it's very difficult for them to consolidate control, especially due to some weaknesses," he said.
The first is a persistent dearth of automatic and heavy weapons, including the portable anti-aircraft missiles that could challenge the military's growing reliance on air strikes.
Ye Myo Hein said resistance groups are making strides. In addition to the weapons they can buy or borrow from the well-equipped ethnic armed groups they have allied with, he said PDFs are now operating some 70 workshops nationwide churning out rudimentary guns and rifles, even a few automatic weapons and mortars. But for the most part, he added, they are still "low quality."
The opposition's other main problem, analysts say, is a stubborn lack of cohesion and coordination at the national level.
"Some [groups] are closer to the NUG than others," Horsey said, "but there hasn't been any sort of grand alliance between ethnic armed groups and the NUG and the post-coup armed resistance forces, and that seems pretty unlikely."
Ye Myo Hein said the NUG has made some progress at pulling the resistance together over the past year. It now has an Alliance Committee, the "J2C," for Joint Command and Coordination, and a Central Command and Coordination Committee, each tasked with working with a different set of ethnic armed groups around the country.
Myanmar's military trucks loaded with missiles are seen during a ceremony marking Myanmar's 75th anniversary of Independence Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
"But the key challenge for them is how to coordinate these different command structures on the strategic level," he said. "It's a key challenge for the NUG and its aligned [groups] in the coming year."
Ballots and bullets
Junta forces are thought to be struggling too.
Analysts say resistance groups are inflicting heavy battlefield losses on the military, though reliable figures of dead and wounded are missing. And while the mass military defections the opposition is hoping for have yet to come, desertions and defections are reportedly rising. Heavy fighting in parts of Myanmar where the military usually draws most of its new recruits from is also believed to be making it much tougher for the junta to replace the troops it is losing.
What the analysts say the military does not lack are weapons, and the fuel and ammunition - and the will - to use them.
"The military junta is still thinking they have ... superior firepower to suppress the opposition, and at the same time they think they can control well inside the country; that's why they are going to go ahead with the election," said Aung Thu Nyein, an analyst with Myanmar's Institute for Strategy and Policy, another think tank.
The junta has yet to set a date for the polls, but insists it wants to hand power back to an elected government this year. The NUG, meanwhile, announced its own intentions in October to bring the junta or any proxy government down by the end of 2023.
Aung Thu Nyein and the others say that's likely to make for an especially violent year ahead, as the junta vies to make more of the country safe for elections and the resistance tries to thwart them, with neither side strong enough to win nor weak enough to lose any time soon.
"There have already been deadly attacks on ... regime administrative staff collecting polling list data, and I think that's just a foretaste of what's coming," said Horsey.
"The election will present a lot of potential targets," he added. "And so, I think we'll see a rather violent electoral year."
Meanwhile, a growing number of assassination targets, on both sides, are being abducted and decapitated. Aung Thu Nyein says that portends not just a deadlier fight ahead, but a more bitter and brutal one.