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Karenni Ethnic Armies Begin Counteroffensive to Capture Kayah State Capital

Fighting intensified between Junta forces and the Karenni Army (KA) and the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) in the capital city of Loikaw, located in Kayah State, Myanmar. The counteroffensive comes after the KA and KNDF retreated from some areas of Loikaw when the Junta sent reinforcements to prevent the groups from capturing the city by late June.

Satellite image of the city of Loikaw on May 31, 2024 (Photo: Sentinel Hub One)

Initial Rebel Offensive and Junta Reinforcements

The KA, KNDF, and local People’s Defense Forces (PDF) launched Operation 1111 in November 2023 to assist the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s (3BHA) Operation 1017 offensive in eastern Myanmar and along the Chinese Myanmar border. The groups initially captured 12 Junta bases and military sites, the city’s police station, government officers, and some parts of Loikaw University around the city during the offensive. The Junta forces stationed in Loikaw used the university as their main base to protect the city. Rebel statements said that they had captured around 80 percent of the capital since November and that there had been few engagements between the Junta and Karenni groups.

In mid-May, the Junta responded to Operation 1111 by sending over 500 troops from the city of Hsihseng, located in Shan State’s Pa-O Self-Administered Zone. The convoy’s objective was to retake bases and territories it had lost to the rebels in Kayah State. The reinforcements coordinated with the 1,500 remaining Junta forces that remained in the city to push the Karenni groups out of the city. The convoy left Hsihseng and arrived at the Kayantharyar Intersection, alternatively known as the Hsihseng-Mongpai-Loikaw Intersection, by early June. The KNDF reported that its forces sporadically clashed with the convoy and that it used Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to conduct aerial reconnaissance during its advance. The columns also reportedly received assistance from the Pa-O National Organization (PNO) and its military wing, the Pa-O National Army (PNA), during its advance south.

Satellite image of Kayantharyer Intersection on May 31, 2024 (Photo: Sentinel Hub One)

By early June, the columns arrived in Loikaw’s vicinity to reinforce the remaining forces and launch a counteroffensive to dislodge the Karenni forces and their allies from the city. The rebels said that Junta troops wearing civilian clothing entered Loikaw to gather intelligence on the resistance forces in the area. Furthermore, the groups also said that the government soldiers stole items and shelled rebel-occupied wards with artillery. While most of the city’s inhabitants fled, the KNDF advised the remaining civilians to build bunkers and shelters to protect themselves from artillery and drone strikes. Various reports also said that the convoy conducted artillery and drone strikes against several villages as it advanced south to dislodge both resistance fighters and civilians so government troops could control the Loikaw to Mongpai Road. Both the KA and KNDF deployed forces to close the Loikaw to Demosos Road to delay the column’s advance by the end of May.

KNDF soldiers patrolling section of Loikaw to Mongpai Road (Photo: Burma News International/KNDF)

The reinforced Junta troops launched an offensive in mid-June to remove the rebels from the areas of Loikaw they occupied. By late June, the Karenni groups withdrew from the Dawh Uku and Narnat Taw Wards, located near Loikaw University, because the Junta forces had superior firepower and more troops. Furthermore, the KA and KNDF said they lacked adequate supplies of ammunition to defend the wards from the Junta’s offensive and are still occupying other wards. They also had to withdraw from the areas because of the Junta’s effective use of drone strikes against its personnel. The groups said the Junta launched the offensive near the university because it wants to reopen the school as part of its efforts to restart local administration, which began in April. The local government reportedly reopened educational, government administrative, health centers, and markets in the wards it controlled to show that the local government is in control. The local administration also restored electricity and Internet access to the wards.

Karenni Army and Karenni Nationalities Defense Force Counteroffensive

Beginning on July 4th, the KA, KNDF, and local PDFs launched an offensive in areas of Loikaw still occupied by the Junta. The areas the Junta continued to occupy included the base housing the Regional Operations Command and 54th Infantry Battalion, the University of Computer Studies, the Loikaw Prison, and the Loikaw Technological University. Both sides clashed in Nabawwan Ward, resulting in three civilian deaths when the Junta launched artillery strikes that hit an area market.

Photo of Thiri Mingalar Market located near downtown Loikaw on July 2, 2024 (Photo: The Kantarawaddy Times)

The Karenni groups and the Junta also fought in the Monglone Ward on July 5th, with the 54th Infantry Battalion shelling the area after the fighting. Local residents reported that several people were injured during the fighting, and other residents fled after the fighting stopped. However, they said that the number of residents killed in the fighting is unknown. The Karenni resistance groups also launched assaults on Junta positions in downtown Loikaw on July 6th. The KA and KNDF urged residents who did not flee Loikaw to stay away from Junta positions due to intensified fighting throughout the city.

Fighting Shows Junta’s and Resistance Groups’ Capabilities and Limitations

The fighting in Loikaw shows that despite the Junta’s ability to conduct counteroffensives in the outlying states and regions, it lacks the necessary capacity to sustain the offensives. However, the KA and KNDF’s offensive shows that resistance forces can exploit the Junta’s logistical and personnel weaknesses to conduct operations on the resistance groups’ terms. The convoy’s success in reaching Loikaw was only the first part of the Junta’s overall plan to recapture the city. The plan, however, had several issues related to the Junta’s logistical capabilities to sustain the offensive. The most significant issue was the Junta’s inability to safeguard any logistical lines extending from Hsihseng to the Kayah State capital. The Junta’s limited capacity to carry provisions is compounded by the resistance groups’ ability to ambush the supply convoys along the routes. The groups also have the ability to shoot down Junta helicopters conducting airborne resupply or flying reinforcements into Loikaw. Another logistical limitation is that the besieged forces will also require supplies because they will likely run dangerously low on certain provisions, such as munitions and medical equipment.

The Junta’s inability to send an adequate number of forces to conduct counteroffensives also adversely affects its ability to conduct offensives. The recent offensives by ethnic armies like the KA and KNDF, along with the PDFs, resulted in the loss of significant numbers of soldiers due to deaths, defections, and surrenders. For example, the KA and KNDF’s Offensive 1111 resulted in the Junta losing a large number of military bases, territory around the capital, and 80 percent of Loikaw, as well as personnel. In February 2024, the Junta implemented the 2010 conscription law in a bid to offset the personnel losses it sustained during the offensives. However, several thousand citizens chose to flee the country or join resistance forces instead of undergoing conscription. The conscripts also received an inadequate amount of training, which limited their combat effectiveness when conducting these counteroffensives, such as in Loikaw. The unit officers and NCOs would also be required to monitor the conscripts to ensure their compliance and loyalty in combat.

The lack of meaningful quantities of personnel to reinforce the contested positions and cities prevents the Junta from fully completing the counteroffensives. Groups such as the KA and KNDF use the Junta’s inability to complete the counteroffensives to withdraw from certain areas to allow for units to regroup and be resupplied. These two points allow the armed groups to conduct renewed offensives against the Junta at a time of their choosing. The offensives also force the Junta to use their limited supplies to defend their bases or occupied areas, which would compound the Junta’s already limited logistical capabilities. The KA and KNDF would also coordinate the offensives with other groups, such as the 3BHA, to further complicate and stretch the Junta’s logistics capacity.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin completed his undergraduate and graduate education at a Texas university and has studied extensively in China. As a former Marine Corps intelligence analyst, he worked in the Indo-Pacific region. His areas of expertise include PLA modernization, particularly PLAN/PLANMC and its expeditionary capabilities, as well as CCP and Chinese domestic politics. He also runs the Sino Talk brand on Instagram and Twitter and is the IndoPacific Desk Chief for Atlas.

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