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Learning from Myanmar’s rebels, junta builds new Chinese drone fleet

Debris reportedly belonging to a drone, which was shot down by Myanmar resistance fighters, in southeastern Myanmar

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s resistance fighters notched decisive breakthroughs last year by relying on a scattered fleet of drones in battles against one of Southeast Asia’s most feared militaries.

But as the civil war grinds on, the rebels increasingly find their familiar weapons – Chinese-made commercial drones modified to carry arms – in the unfamiliar hands of the country’s ruling junta, according to seven people with knowledge of the matter.

“The battle is changing now as drones are being used by both sides,” said a 31-year-old rebel fighter in the country’s southeast, identifying himself by the nom de guerre of Ta Yoke Gyi.

He said the junta began using armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to attack the rebels at around the turn of the year and that his unit recently shot down a drone, which they identified as Chinese from its components and had been modified for combat. Two rebel fighters in other parts of Myanmar also described similar skirmishes to Reuters.  

The news agency interviewed four resistance fighters, two analysts and an official from a country in the region who tracks the conflict. They described for the first time specifics about the junta’s use of Chinese-manufactured drones that are jerry-rigged to carry explosives. Some of them spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Some resistance fighters have been injured by the junta’s drones, said Ta Yoke Gyi. “They’ve become better at using them.”

The junta started procuring thousands of Chinese commercial UAVs at the start of the year that it is modifying to arm with locally-manufactured munitions, said Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security think-tank. 

He said he obtained information on junta drones from military officials and people with knowledge of weapons production.

A junta spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment. The military has not spoken publicly about its recent use of UAVs. Regime leader Min Aung Hlaing said last year that rebels had dropped over 25,000 bombs using drones during a major October offensive on military posts, some of which had to be abandoned.

In response to a Reuters question, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said: “China has always adopted a prudent and responsible attitude in the export of military products and dual-use items.”

A spokesperson for the shadow National Unity Government, part of the anti-junta resistance, did not return a request for comment.

Myanmar’s military also ordered about 12 armed CH-3 UAVs from China around 2013, according to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms transfer database. 

But the junta isn’t using such aircraft during offensives, instead deploying multi-rotor commercial drones – including ones designed for agriculture –  in the latest sorties, the resistance members said.

Four rebel fighters told Reuters they had only seen a handful of junta drones at a time on the frontline in recent months, suggesting the military hadn’t deployed all the newly procured aircraft.

Reuters could not independently establish why the CH-3s were not being used for offensive operations or why the junta does not appear to have engaged in mass deployment of the Chinese-made commercial drones.

More than three years since its dawn coup abruptly ended Myanmar’s tentative experiment with civilian democracy, the junta is at its weakest, having lost vast territories to an opposition comprising new armed groups and established ethnic armies.

While is hard to predict the trajectory of the civil war in the coming months, the resistance appears to have lost its early advantage of being the main fighting force using drones, said the Myanmar Institute’s Min Zaw Oo, a view supported by another analyst and Ta Yoke Gyi.


Commercial drones emerged as a game changer during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, when Kyiv’s forces used them to rapidly build large fleets deployed for battlefield purposes.

In Myanmar, Ta Yoke Gyi wasn’t thinking about weapons until a few years ago. Before the junta unseated the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021, he was a long-distance bus driver. 

Angered by the junta’s crackdown on the ensuing protests, Ta Yoke Gyi joined thousands of other young people in taking up arms against the military.

He now heads a unit called the Angry Bird Drone Rangers, part of a rebel force that began deploying small UAVs made by China’s DJI for reconnaissance missions shortly after the coup.

DJI didn’t return a request for comment.

The unit subsequently built larger drones that it modified to carry domestic-produced bombs, using instructions gleaned from experts on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

“We bought the components part by part and started testing the drones for about four to five months,” said Ta Yoke Gyi.

The three other resistance members described similar methods of building larger armed UAVs. Several components of such drones are available on regional e-commerce platforms, according to a Reuters review of the websites.

The rebels use the drones to scout junta positions, before sending them on bombing runs that are followed by ground assaults, the four people said.

Until recently, Myanmar’s junta had relied on artillery and conventional aerial support to hold on to strategic outposts in the borderlands, where the bloodiest fighting is taking place, said Min Zaw Oo.

Additional troops were rushed in when necessary, but the junta lacked adequate reserve forces to reinforce positions across multiple frontlines, he said.

The swarms of rebel drones disabled artillery positions and resistance ground troops cut off nearby military bases, said the analyst, who previously worked on ceasefire negotiations involving the military and ethnic armies. 

The most significant demonstration of rebel drone warfare came during Operation 1027, a major offensive led by an alliance of three ethnic armies last October, according to two analysts. 

Fighters from the rebel Three Brotherhood Alliance “just sent wave after wave after wave of drones to drop explosives onto these bases,” said Morgan Michaels, a Myanmar expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.

But in the following months, the resistance started being attacked by the junta’s drones.

“I think that Operation 1027 and the way that drones were used against the regime was definitely a wake-up call,” said Michaels, who follows the battleground closely. “Now they appear to be substantially expanding their use of drones in an offensive capacity.” 

Two resistance fighters told Reuters that they had shot down drones that appeared to be originally designed for spraying crops. One of them, based in eastern Myanmar, said that a drone brought down by his unit had “Boying” written on it in English.

China’s Boying, which manufactures flight controllers for UAVs mainly used for agriculture, declined to comment.

An expanding UAV attack fleet is welcomed by demoralised junta forces that are now relying on conscription to replenish shrinking frontline battalions, said Min Zaw Oo.

As the military takes time to retrain and refit, it will likely maintain a defensive posture, he said. “But at the same time, they will harass the opposition’s positions with the use of drones.”

(Reporting by Reuters staff, Chanchinmawia in ZOKKHAWTHAR and Panu Wongcha-um in BANGKOK; Additional reporting by Casey Hall in SHANGHAI and Liz Lee in BEIJING; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Katerina Ang)




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