Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aakash Hassan in Camp Victoria and Hannah Ellis-Petersen

‘We killed many … drones are our air force’: Myanmar’s rebels take on the junta from above

Rebel soldiers at an outpost in Camp Victoria, the headquarter of Chin National Army in Myanmar.
Rebel soldiers at an outpost in Camp Victoria, headquarter of the Chin National Army. Photograph: Aakash Hassan/The Observer

As the drones flew silently over western Myanmar’s Chin hills, the junta did not know what was about to hit them. Their operators were hidden a few hundred metres away in the dense forest. As the images on their screens indicated the drone fleet was hovering exactly above the target – a key military base in the town of Lailenpi – they hit the button on their controllers and bombs began to fall.

“We had precise hits,” said Noah, 20, one of the specialist drone fighters in the Chin National Army (CNA), one of the ethnic rebel groups who have been fighting Myanmar’s military for almost three years. “It took them by surprise. We killed many, including the second-in-command of the base.”

After three days of fighting, the rebels hoisted their tricolour flag over the base and shouted slogans of victory.

In the bloody war between the military junta, who toppled the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and seized control in a coup in February 2021, and the rebel groups who have been fighting to restore democracy since, a significant shift has been taking place.

The junta has now lost control of more than 50% of the country, and in Chin state, which borders India, the CNA rebel forces say they have managed to capture back 70% of the province, including five key military bases.

The secret to their recent victories, they say, is a new fleet of drones and an army of rebel soldiers – most of whom were once ordinary civilians – who have spent over a year training to operate them. “Drones have been key to our success,” said Ram Kulh Cung, the CNA’s assistant general secretary. “The attacks, like those at Lailenpi, have been carried out after months of planning and training.”

During a recent visit to Camp Victoria, the central headquarters of the CNA in Chin state, they showed the Observer the vast fleet of thousands of commercial and agricultural drones – otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles – they had imported, mostly from China but also from western countries such as the United States, to hit the junta-controlled territory in targeted attacks.

Since the military, known as the Tatmadaw, took power, they have overseen a brutal nationwide crackdown. Its soldiers have been accused of arbitrary arrests, torture, mass killings, rapes and abuses that, according to Human Rights Watch, amount to crimes against humanity. More than 4,000 civilians have been reported to have been killed in the conflict since the coup.

Beauty Zailenpar (21), a rebel fighter with Chin National Army
Beauty Zailenpar (21), a rebel fighter with Chin National Army, getting ready for her posting. Photograph: Aakash Hassan/The Observer

Until recently, the military have had the heavy advantage of a highly technical air force, which has been used to carry out hundreds of deadly airstrikes – often targeting areas of resistance – which have killed thousands.

Yet the fleet of fighter jets is costly for the junta to maintain and operate, and increasingly proving no match for the drones being cheaply and expertly utilised by the rebel armies against the military-controlled areas.

Junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun conceded that they had been facing heavy assaults and the insurgents had been using drones to drop hundreds of bombs on military posts.

Indian army officials said that most of the border posts on the Myanmar side had been either overrun by rebels or are under threat. In the past two months, more than 400 Myanmar army soldiers have fled across the border to the Indian state of Mizoram, following rebel attacks.

So successful has the drones technology been in rebel warfare that the junta has also started using commercial drones to carry out attacks but has lacked the necessary training to use them as efficiently as the rebel fighters.

“The use of drones has created a tectonic shift in Myanmar’s battlefield,” said Angshuman Choudhury, an associate fellow at Delhi-based thinktank Centre for Policy Research. “They have not completely closed the tactical asymmetry between the military and resistance forces, but have diminished it significantly.”

He said the drones have created a “sense of fear among the junta rank-and-file that they are being watched discreetly and could be attacked from the air anytime, anywhere – something that was absolutely unthinkable before the coup.”

The CNA is now one of the rebel armies that has a dedicated drones department, established over a year ago, whose footsoldiers have learned to operate the technology mostly through months of operational practice and tutorials on YouTube.

“The drone department consists of skilled young fighters – some who were engineering students and some who have gained knowledge of drones as a hobby,” said Cung. “The department also relies hugely on the internet to upgrade the skills and train more people.”

The technology, said Cung, was “turning the tables” but added: “Procuring weapons and drones is not easy for us. There is nothing easy in war.”

Commanders said that most of the military equipment was coming in via the borders with China and Thailand rather than through India, which had been keeping a tight control on any kind of weapons inflow.

A squad of Myanmar rebels works to ready a drone for an attack on a nearby military base.
A squad of Myanmar rebels works to ready a drone for an attack on a nearby military base. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

CNA leadership also attributed the recent successes of the resistance forces to a greater alliance and increased coordination between the different armed ethnic minority groups fighting the junta across Myanmar, who in the past had not always worked harmoniously due to differing priorities and infighting.

In late October, three insurgent groups – known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance – launched “Operation 1027”, to take on junta troops in Shan state near Myanmar’s border with China. Furthering the nationwide momentum behind the assault, other rebel groups, including the Arakan Army and CNA, supported the operation from their own regions. Ultimately, several towns and more than 100 military outputs were taken from the junta in the offensive.

Last week, in what many took as a sign of the growing weakness of the junta, the military and an alliance of rebel groups announced a China-mediated ceasefire along Myanmar’s border with China. However, the CNA was not party to it and commanders told the Observer they would not be abiding by it in Chin state.

At Camp Victoria headquarters, every morning hundreds of newly recruited cadets – who get just a few months training before being sent to the frontlines – take part in a parade. Yet even as morale was high following the recent spate of victories, the nearby cemetery also revealed how this battle is still not an easy one. More than two dozen young fighters killed in the recent operations had been laid to rest, their tombstones engraved with lines of valour honouring their actions in battle.

A group of rebel fighters from Chin National Army (CNA) in the Chin province of Myanmar.
A group of rebel fighters from Chin National Army (CNA) in the Chin province of Myanmar. Photograph: Aakash Hassan/The Observer

But with drones opening up a new frontier of warfare for Myanmar’s rebel armies, Sabu, 49, a commander in the CNA’s drones department, was among those who felt a renewed confidence in their chances of defeating the junta.

“We were bad at using them initially and missed most of the targets in the first year,” he said.

However, the dedicated training was now paying off, he said, and several of their recent successful ground offensives against the junta had been preceded by pre-dawn drone strikes. “Drones are our air force,” said Sabu.

“We will win this war with them.”

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.