Mapping Territorial Control in Post-Coup Myanmar: Flawed by Design?

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Mapping Territorial Control in Post-Coup Myanmar: Flawed by Design?

Attempts to map the areas controlled by the military junta and its various opponents frequently obscure more than they reveal.

Mapping Territorial Control in Post-Coup Myanmar: Flawed by Design?

People cross the Moei river as they flee Myawaddy township in Myanmar to Thailand’s Mae Sot town in Thailand’s Tak province, Saturday, April 20, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Warangkana Wanichachewa

Since the intensification of Myanmar’s armed conflicts following the military coup of February 2021, digital maps have become increasingly prevalent for conveying the country’s complex conflict dynamics. While armed conflict maps that highlight the location of armed clashes on the ground are subject to limitations due to their reliance on media sources for conflict data, which may not always provide a comprehensive account of every clash on the ground, they generally remain reliable and useful, especially in terms of showing conflict dynamics and changing patterns. In contrast, maps claiming to show the shifting territorial control of the military junta and various armed opponents, even those published by internationally renowned organizations, have thus far demonstrated less reliability and often, end up misleading the audience.

A good example of this occurred on April 20, when the New York Times (NYT) published a map purporting to illustrate the territories controlled by both the resistance and the junta, as well as those that remained contested, based on data provided by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M). The map, and the data on which it was based, was widely shared across social media and cited by reputable foreign media outlets. However, despite its visual appeal, the NYT’s map falls short of accurately representing the complexities of territorial control in Myanmar. One significant issue is the categorization of all ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) under the umbrella term “resistance.” This creates the false impression of a unified and cohesive movement of resistance against the junta, when in reality, things on the ground are far more fluid and ambiguous. The junta is indeed losing war on many fronts, but not yet in the manner or scale represented on the map.

Different EAOs have distinct political agendas, and there are complex interactions and divisions within the resistance movement itself. While there are issues with the map’s decision to include many contested areas under resistance control, which is particularly noticeable in regions like Sagaing and most of Tanintharyi, this article will focus on the issue of oversimplified categorization, which risks excluding key stakeholders and obscuring the complex dynamics among and between the various resistance actors. Due to space limitations, the article will primarily focus on Shan, Kayin (Karen), and Chin States, as they suffer more from misrepresentation. By highlighting the situations in these regions, the aim is to contribute to better understanding of the complex nature of resistance, and improvement of future territorial-control mappings, which could better represent the dynamics on the ground. While this article will use the NYT’s map as an example, these critiques could apply to other widely circulated maps, especially those based on SAC-M data, which have been published as the conflict in Myanmar has intensified.

First of all, almost the entire of Shan State is marked as being under resistance control. This is misleading given that the majority of the territories in Shan State are currently controlled by EAOs, which arguably cannot be included in the category of “resistance.” Each EAO has its own political agenda, often based on ethno-nationalism, which does not necessarily align with objectives set by the majority Bamar-led resistance movements. The most powerful EAO, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which controls territories in northern, eastern, and southern Shan State, for example, has refrained from taking an official stance on the Spring Revolution, and since the coup has primarily focused on expanding its territories, particularly to the west of the Thanlwin River. It has only been involved in inter-regional conflicts among Shan State EAOs, such as backing  the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) in their bid to drive their historic rival, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), out of northern Shan State in 2022. The RCSS has subsequently aligned itself with the military, despite initially opposing the coup, a development that underscores the fluid nature of shifting alliances in Shan State.

There continues to be a lack of coordination between Shan State EAOs and the National Unity Government (NUG), even with the relatively close allies such as the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA), which includes the TNLA, the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), each of which has trained and armed civilian NUG-aligned People’s Defense Forces in its territories. Operation 1027 , the offensive that was launched in northern Shan State in October, was led by the 3BHA and while PDFs such as Bamar People’s Liberation Army and other Mandalay-based groups were involved to some extent, they operate largely independently of the NUG’s command structure. Even after the 3BHA successfully captured many towns in northern Shan, there have been no reports of the NUG establishing liaison offices in these territories.

Moreover, despite declaring that their aim was to end the military dictatorship, the 3BHA members were primarily focused on their own goals: the TNLA and MNDAA aimed to establish control over territories in northern Shan State, while the AA later opened another battlefront in Rakhine State, where it hopes to establish an independent Rakhine nation. Shortly after achieving most of their targets, the 3BHA, except for AA in Rakhine State, entered into a China-mediated ceasefire agreement with the military, an agreement that continues mostly to hold, despite occasional skirmishes since. This localized focus does not necessarily indicate a broader intention to expand operations down into the Bamar-dominated central plain and root out the military for good.

Another factor challenging the NYT map’s portrayal of a seemingly unified resistance front is the internal tensions between EAOs, including in Shan State. The 3BHA is backed by the UWSA’s rivals, the SSPP and RCSS, but while claiming to represent the ethnic Shan people, these two groups are also deeply divided. Following Operation 1027, likely out of concerns about the loss of influence and territory in Shan State, the SSPP and RCSS, despite being historic rivals, forged a ceasefire agreement to counterbalance the growing strength of the 3BHA.

Beyond these internal Shan State dynamics, the TNLA has a longstanding rivalry with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) territories lying along the border between Kachin State and northern Shan, and has recently experienced tensions with the KIA in Shan State’s Kutkai Township. Such complicated dynamics reflect the fragmented nature of the conflict map in Shan State, and this is without even considering other neutral EAOs like the National Democratic Alliance Army, and the pro- and anti-military Pa-O militias in southern Shan State whose distinct operational areas are all hidden by the map’s blanket blue color coding.

Moving further south to Kayin State, territories are depicted on the map again as a singular unit under resistance control. The majority of the territories in Kayin State are operated and controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), which is made up of seven brigades, each of which maintains operational independence from the KNU. These brigades do not always align with each other and hold their own territories within Kayin State. For instance, amidst the post-coup conflict, KNLA Brigades 1, 5, and 6 have actively engaged in combat against the military junta alongside PDFs, while the remaining brigades have tended to maintain a more neutral stance. In addition to this, the existence of the KNU breakaway factions, such as the KNU/KNLA Peace Council and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which position themselves as neutral actors in the post-coup environment, and the mercenary Border Guard Force (BGF) under opportunist Col. Saw Chit Thu, also significantly impacts the state’s conflict dynamics. These groups have also been problematic for the resistance, especially in the recent struggles over the city of Myawaddy on the Thai border.

In the country’s west, Chin State falls into another oversimplified categorization. The mostly rural state, known for its diverse ethnic sub-groups and cultures, is home to various armed resistance groups which have gained control over large swaths of territories, especially following Operation 1027. However, the situation there remains complex, with Chin ethnic resistance groups not always in agreement regarding how the state should be managed in the event of the military’s defeat. The Chin National Front (CNF), the oldest resistance group in Chin State, finds itself in a rivalry with the Interim Chin National Consultative Committee (ICNCC) made up of former MPs, civil society organizations, and resistance groups, which is backed by the NUG. Initially a key member of the ICNCC, the CNF withdrew from the organization in early 2023 and later established the “Chinland Constitution” and Chinland Council. The formation of such institutions was met with protest from the ICNCC which expressed “non-recognition” of the Council.

Some major Chin resistance groups such as the CDF-Mindat, the Chin National Organization, and the Zomi Federal Union, sided with the ICNCC and formed their own alliance “Chinland Brotherhood,” which is reportedly supported by the AA, raising concerns among Chin communities about the involvement of external actors in Chin State affairs. These concerns were heightened by the AA’s capture of Paletwa Townnship in southern Chin State early this year. Moreover, occasional clashes have occurred between the CNF-led coalition and the Maraland Defense Force, with the most recent incident taking place in March of this year. As of now, territories in Chin State are controlled separately by resistance groups aligned with the Chinland Council and those opposing it.

To ensure that future maps accurately represent ground realities, it is crucial to move away from oversimplified categorizations and instead incorporate a range of more specific  classifications. If resource limitations exist, map producers should at least aim to differentiate between EAOs and PDFs, which could then be further broken down into those that operate under the NUG and those that don’t but remain influential, such as the Mandalay PDF and Bamar People’s Liberation Army. There should also be separate timelines depicting territorial control, distinguishing between the pre-coup and post-coup periods, since  many large territories, such as those controlled by the UWSA, have been held by EAOs for decades.

Map producers should engage with local sources, such as the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar and the Myanmar Peace Monitor, which is made up of various ethnic media groups, among others, rather than relying solely on one data source. Mapping should also be guided by detailed methodologies. Now is also a good opportunity to reflect on the concept of “territorial control” itself and establish more reliable criteria for determining what this means in practice. This could include considering the success of administrative structures and the normalcy of civilians’ lives in these territories, and establishing a separate category for operational zones distinct from “controlled territories.” While a degree of simplification is inherent to the drawing of maps, and necessary for audiences less familiar with Myanmar affairs, this could potentially do more harm than good, potentially misleading readers about the course of a complicated and multifarious conflict. Oversimplified categorization can also risk portraying Myanmar as a unified sovereign structure while overlooking the diverse interests, relative autonomies, and self-determination that EAOs have long enjoyed in parts of the country.