In war-torn Myanmar, an offensive launched in late October by an alliance of three ethnic minority rebel groups in the country's northern region has posed the biggest challenge to the military since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government.

Together with offensives by other ethnic rebel groups and the militia of a parallel government formed by members of Suu Kyi's political party, the attacks threaten the military's grip on power three years since the coup.

Aung San Suu Kyi. (Kyodo)

But observers caution that it is too early to expect the resistance forces to defeat the military because it still has authority consolidated in the junta chief and ethnic rebels have conflicting claims over territories.

China, concerned about the conflict across its border, mediated between the two sides and announced ceasefire agreements in December and January. But the agreements fell through, with the alliance blaming the military's continued airstrikes and artillery firing.

The intensifying civil war is making the already dire humanitarian situation in the country worse. Action on Armed Violence, a Britain-based organization, said 745 civilians were killed by explosive weapons in Myanmar last year, a 155 percent increase over 2022.

When the three ethnic groups called the Three Brotherhood Alliance announced the ongoing offensive dubbed "Operation 1027" for its launch date, the alliance said, "We are dedicated to eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship, a shared aspiration of the entire Myanmar populace."

Junta-appointed Acting President Myint Swe subsequently warned on Nov. 8 that Myanmar would be "split into various parts" if the junta fails to manage the situation.

On Jan. 4, some 2,000 government troops in Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang ethnic group's self-administered zone in northern Shan State, surrendered to the Kokang militia, one of the groups of the alliance.

Military soldiers are reportedly suffering morale deterioration due to exhaustion from relentless fighting.

Aung Zaw, editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy news website, wrote in a Dec. 29 commentary that more soldiers will defect from the military in 2024 when more offensives by the opposition forces are expected.

"Soldiers will be forced to remain in their military quarters, lacking the will to fight, low on morale and disillusioned. They know the people hate them," he wrote.

The alliance claimed to have taken hundreds of army outposts and seized over a dozen strategic towns in Shan State in October.

Intense fighting has since spreading to the western state of Rakhine where the ethnic Arakan Army is fiercely attacking the military, gradually seizing army bases and junta-held towns.

The People's Defense Force, the resistance force backed by the parallel National Unity Government, or NUG, has been collaborating with ethnic Kachin, Kayin and Kayah rebel groups.

They have stepped up fighting in line with Operation 1027, capturing several towns in central Sagaing region and northwestern Chin State as well as Kayin and Kayah States in the southeast.

Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the NUG, said in a social media post on Jan. 21, "The only way to root out the terrorist through collaborative efforts of the ethnic armed groups and the Peoples Defense Force."

The military staged the coup after the 2020 general election in which Suu Kyi's then-ruling party National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. The 78-year-old democracy icon has been detained since the coup and sentenced to decades of imprisonment.

The junta initially promised to hold a general election after a one-year state of emergency, but it has since extended the period every six months, saying it needs more time to repulse the resistance forces.

Although the Operation 1027 and other offensives have brought hope, some experts see predictions of the junta's collapse as premature.

Morgan Michaels, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a January report that the impact of the military's territorial losses on morale could generate internal instability of the regime of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

"Yet any effort to sideline Min Aung Hlaing will be difficult. Since the coup, the junta leader has carefully consolidated his power by removing potential rivals from important positions," he said.

Myanmar's junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing inspects troops during an annual military parade in the country's administrative capital of Naypyitaw on March 27, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Aung Zaw said the junta is not about to be toppled and expressed concerns over China as a mediator.

"In the absence of an active Myanmar policy and consistent engagement from the West, China has grabbed the opportunity and attempted to broker a peace deal in the recent conflict, though the effort has yet to yield results," he said.

"However, no one trusts China," Aung Zaw said, noting that it remains a key arms supplier to the regime.

A 40-year-old local ethnic affairs expert in Myanmar, on condition of anonymity, said ethnic minority groups seem to view the anti-coup movement as a chance to achieve their decades-long goals of greater autonomy in their territories.

"But in that setting, intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic conflicts could emerge due to overlapping territorial claims and historical communal tensions among them," he said.

The civilian population continues to suffer as the number of displaced people by the end of 2023 stands at 2.6 million, U.N. figures show.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is expected to continue working for humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, according to Moe Thuzar, senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Laos, as ASEAN's rotating chair, has appointed a special envoy on Myanmar, who visited the capital Naypyitaw in January.

ASEAN and the junta in April 2021 reached a five-point consensus that included an ASEAN envoy meeting with "all parties concerned," presumably including Suu Kyi's NLD, but the military has not followed through on it.

Among the displaced people is a 45-year-old woman from Moe Meik in Shan State who in January, as the military lost its base near the town and the sound of gunfire got closer to their home, fled the town to the central city of Mandalay with her family.

"I heard some civilians who stayed behind in the town have died due to artillery" of the military, she said. "We don't want military rule, but we also want to see the war end as quickly as possible."

Related coverage:

Myanmar junta likely to send senior official to ASEAN meeting in Laos

FOCUS: Japan urged to proactively engage with Myanmar as China steps in

Myanmar junta, militias agree to cease-fire in China-mediated talks