Nearly 20 months after the military coup in Myanmar, amid a rapidly intensifying conflict, People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary groups are turning to drone technology to level the playing field as they engage better-equipped junta troops.
When the PDF was formed in the months following the military takeover on February 1, 2021, its members were forced to fight Southeast Asia’s second-largest army using only slingshots and the same crude flintlock “Tumee” rifles their ancestors used to fight British colonizers in the 1880s. As the network grew, the groups began using homemade landmines to target their enemy’s convoys.
The latest addition to the PDF arsenal is civilian drones, repurposed to drop explosives on junta troops. PDF sources told RFA Burmese that the drones are safe, accurate and require little manpower to operate during clashes.
Boh Lin Yaung, head of the Khin-U Support Organization (KSO) in Sagaing region’s Khin-U township, said his group took civilian drones used to record video and upgraded them to drop bombs on specific locations .
“Drones have many advantages, so we started buying them,” he said.
“Right now we’re working with small drones that are used for photography and therefore can only carry small payloads – about half a certain (24 ounces). The main reason we use them is because it’s the safest way for us to engage the enemy on.”
Boh Lin Yaung said his group had previously sought to obtain automatic rifles but decided to use drones instead because of how effective they are at such a low cost point against the junta’s advantages in modern military equipment, training and supplies.
Members of the Sagaing Region PDFs also reported success using drones, although they acknowledged that they are susceptible to being shot out of the sky. They noted that the junta has been using reconnaissance drones to determine their locations and engage them with heavy weapons and airstrikes.
‘Our drones dominate the sky’
In Kayin state, where the intensity of the fighting rivals that of Sagaing, PDFs use large drones with six propellers that can carry heavier loads.
Myo Thura Ko, the information officer for the Cobra Regiment, said PDFs have been using combat and patrol drones in Kayin since December 2021.
“The enemy can be easily defeated because the drones disturb them … They get scared when they hear the sound of the drones flying,” he said.
“They do a lot of airstrikes, but their planes just drop bombs and leave. The rest of the time, our drones dominate the skies. Our drones also have the ability to scout at night, so they have become a nightmare for enemy troops.”
Myo Thura Ko said a drone can be equipped with up to five bombs and patrol dangerous areas using less manpower.
PDF files said the junta has recently started installing radio frequency jammers to prevent drones from flying near their camps.
RFA’s attempts to contact the junta’s Deputy Information Minister Major General Zaw Min Tun about the military response to PDF drones went unanswered. However, at a September 20 press conference in the capital Naypyidaw, he told reporters that anti-drone weapons have been installed in strategic locations to protect against attacks.
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of Thayningha Strategy Studies Group, a group of former military officers, said PDFs are limited in their ability to attack using civilian drones because of their need for technical support.
“The drones used to spray chemicals in agriculture called ‘Hexacopters’ have six propellers. They can carry a larger payload and are now being used to drop bombs from the air. But if we look at it from a technical point of view, the release mechanism is not easy to operate,” he said.
“To overcome this problem, they need support. So it’s not a normal development. It’s not something they can do themselves. It’s clear that someone else is providing the technical know-how.”
Shadow Govt drone device
The Ministry of Communications, Information and Technology (MOCIT) under Myanmar’s umbrella National Unity Government (NUG) recently formed a “Federal Wings” drone unit manned by tech-savvy youth. Federal Wings’ social media page claims the unit has already participated in battlefield operations using drones.
The NUG Defense Ministry also said it is seeking funding to consolidate PDF drone strike forces into an armed force.
Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said he expects both sides to increasingly add drones to their arsenals.
“Using drones not only for scouting but also for deploying weapons is a development that has mostly happened since the coup,” he said.
“Drones are a widely available technology that can be used by both sides. The role of drones is of increasing importance to modern warfare.”
Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.