Author: Andrew Selth, Griffith Asia Institute
Since the February 2021 coup, resistance to the junta in Myanmar has grown from protest rallies and civil disobedience campaigns to a nation-wide civil war that encompasses terrorist-style attacks in urban centres and guerrilla campaigns in rural districts. The military regime has responded to these challenges, in part, by exploiting its command of the air.
This has in turn led to louder and more frequent calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Myanmar, policed by foreign powers under the aegis of the United Nations (UN). These calls, however, are likely to be in vain. An effective and internationally-enforced air exclusion zone over Myanmar is one idea that, for several reasons, will not fly.
Anti-junta groups started calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone soon after the coup. Last April, for example, Myanmar’s UN representative (who was appointed by the former government) called for a no-fly zone ‘to avoid further bloodshed caused by military air strikes on civilian areas’. At the time, the Myanmar Air Force (MAF) was hardly in evidence and his request attracted little attention.
As the civil war spread, however, and ethnic armed organisations (EAO) began supporting the resistance movement, the MAF was increasingly used by the junta to gather intelligence, move troops, provide logistical support and conduct ground strikes. Attacks were made by both rotary and fixed wing aircraft, mostly against guerrilla groups in rural settings but also against towns and other concentrations of non-combatants.
Recently, calls for a no-fly zone have become more strident. One EAO chief has said that he was confident the resistance would win if there was a no-fly zone to keep the MAF off its back. Another resistance leader has pleaded for UN action to prevent the MAF from attacking both armed groups and civilians. A senior opposition figure has even claimed ‘we have the upper hand on the ground. We just need to worry about their air force’.
The idea of a no-fly zone has its foreign supporters. In November 2021, for example, Australian Senator David Fawcett called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Myanmar. He felt that Australia should ‘work with urgency to advocate with ASEAN and others for a no-fly zone … to be authorised by the UN Security Council’. Failing that, he sought an embargo on the sale of aviation fuel to Myanmar, to keep the MAF grounded.
A no-fly zone would seem to offer obvious benefits to the armed resistance forces and civilian population. Such measures proved reasonably effective in places like Kosovo and Iraq. However, as those examples showed, no-fly zones need to be considered in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time. Also, they raise a number of difficult political, economic and practical questions.
As long as Myanmar’s junta enjoys the support of Russia and China, there is little chance that the UN Security Council would endorse military action of that kind. Without the international community’s blessing, it is difficult to see any country, or coalition of countries, adopting such a measure, which would be tantamount to declaring war on Myanmar.
It is also hard to think of any state willing to devote the massive resources necessary to enforce a no-fly zone over Myanmar, for any period. The United States, for example, has shown no enthusiasm for involvement in another foreign conflict. Despite its reservations about the junta, Myanmar’s regional neighbours would not go to war with a fellow-ASEAN member.
For a no-fly zone to be effective, a nearby country would need to provide basing facilities and a degree of logistical support for the fighters, surveillance aircraft and fuel tankers involved. It would also need to give permission for the foreign aircraft it hosted to conduct combat operations from its territory. Given their long term strategic interests, none of Myanmar’s five immediate neighbours are likely to agree to such an arrangement.
A no-fly zone over Myanmar could conceivably be enforced by carrier-borne aircraft, operating from international waters. However, for the reasons given above, none of the eight countries which operate appropriate aircraft carriers are likely to support such a proposal.
Also, should a no-fly zone be imposed, it can be expected that Myanmar’s intensely nationalistic armed forces (or Tatmadaw) would strongly resist any incursions into its territory. It would employ its ground defence and air defence assets to attack any foreign aircraft seeking to deny it the unrestricted use of its own air space. The Tatmadaw has little experience in conventional warfare, but that would not stop it from using every weapon system it had available, to resist.
Over the past few decades the Tatmadaw has acquired a wide range of radars, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns, mainly from China, Russia, Belarus and North Korea. These systems are probably vulnerable to modern counter-measures, but they would still constitute a threat to any foreign aircraft trying to enforce an air exclusion zone over Myanmar.
Should any MAF aircraft be shot down by foreign forces, or any Tatmadaw ground-based defence installations be attacked, the political as well as the military stakes would escalate rapidly, with unknown consequences. Indeed, the imposition of a no-fly zone could turn the current civil war into an international conflict, making its resolution even more difficult.
Command of the air gives the junta a significant advantage over the disparate ground forces ranged against it. However, it is not the game-changer that it is sometimes held up to be. Also, even if it could be implemented, a no-fly zone is not the key to ending the bitter fighting in Myanmar. The strategic picture is much more complex and demanding than that suggested by some members of the opposition movement.
Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, in Brisbane, Australia. His latest book is ‘Myanmar (Burma) since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography’ (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2022).
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