From Entertainment to Resistance: Evolution of Drone Usage in Myanmar

by mohingamatters

Just before the Thingyan festiva this year, the whole country was celebrating when they heard the regime’s strongest hold Nay Pyi Taw had been attacked by the resistance forces with handmade drones. Even though the attack did not cause significant damage in the regime’s bases, Myanmar people took this attack as the first milestone by using handmade, improvised drones in the history of the resistance. U Yee Mon, Defense Minister for National Unity Government (NUG), wrote on his social media that “Every target of the terrorist military council had been registered and could be attacked.” 

Days later, more exciting news was delivered to Myanmar people as the regime’s number two leader Deputy Commander-in-Chief General Soe Win was attacked and injured in Mon State as the same drone unit that carried out the attack in Nay Pyi Taw launched multiple drone attacks.

Although none of the reliable news media has received verified information about Soe Win’s situation, it is rare to see his public appearance on the national television ever since. Whether Soe Win was eventually attacked by drones or not, these attacks have boosted the morale of the resistance groups, their supporters and the civilian government. 

So many questions arose. Why is drone warfare so important for the revolution? When drones were introduced to Myanmar? How have drones evolved to such capacities? To answer these questions, we shall take a look back at the history of drones in the country. 

Before drones came into the scene, aerial shots were made with various means depending on the budget of a project in the International film industry. As for our poor country, we did not have the privilege of filming aerial footage with commercial aircrafts before drones came into the scene. Crane shots were the best we could get. However, I witnessed the waves of introduction of commercial improvised drones for videography for the first time in 2011 as I was working in the industry. My first improvised drone experience was also in the same year as I worked for a commercial video production company in Myanmar. 

When commercial drones were introduced, filmmakers and videographers from both mainstream and independent scenes were thrilled to use these new gadgets to get rare aerial footage of Myanmar’s significant landmarks. Those in Yangon dreamed and eventually attempted to fly over Shwedagon Pagoda to take magnificent aerial shots of the world famous stupa. Unfortunately, authorities prohibited it, reasoning that it was disrespectful to the holy site.

A private drone engineer who goes by the name DES recollected the time he was asked by Shwedagon Pagoda’s patrons to submit quotations for anti-drone EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) guns to prevent fly-over to Shwedagon pagoda during Thein Sein administration.

It’s very expensive,” he said. “Even if you can afford it, you have to be ready 24/7 because you can’t predict when the drone will fly to the target.”

During the reign of quasi-democratic government, commercial drone development was significantly visible in the country. Professionals and enthusiasts alike were not only using improvised drones, but also Chinese-made drones that were imported in the country in large quantities. DJI is the one famous brand for Myanmar drone users. 

Later on, the use of drones expanded to industries other than film and videography. Technicians from the agricultural sector, as well as, satellite mapping sector were introduced to drones for their work. Although the use of drones were beneficial and widely adopted, those in power tried to limit the drone usage.

The government then did not have any proper directive or law for importing modern drones and domestic usage. However, there were incidents where drone users were prosecuted for simply flying drones in certain locations. In one of the significant incidents, two foreign journalists, a local journalist and their driver were taken in custody for flying their drone over a restricted zone which was the parliament building in the administrative capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Despite the international community’s request for their release, all four of them were charged with the 1930 Anti-Aircraft Act and sentenced to jail for two months. By that time, I shifted from commercial filmmaking to video journalism, and I actually witnessed that incident as I was in Nay Pyi Taw to cover a news event. 

Aung Naing Soe, the local journalist who was detained in said event, recalled the event on how he had tricked the police by switching the SD cards to keep the footage of parliament building they were shooting. He was amused just for revealing their sneaky secret that had done right in front of the police. 

He said, “I told them that I would replace the battery of the drone in the shade, then I secretly switched SD card. They are just fools. If they noticed our intention of switching the SD card and if they eventually located the right one that was hidden in the van, they would be able to charge us with the highest accusation like the Official Secret Act”. 

He added that the act that was used to charge them was constituted back in 1930. “It was just a joke. It showed that their intention to put us behind bars is to teach us lessons. Not just to us but to journalists around the country.” 

Since then, it was obvious that Myanmar was not ready to face the threat of drones both constitutionally and militarily. However, around 2021, a sophisticated drone prevention system emerged in Singapore, another country in the region.

DES said, “When I was living in the neighborhood called Pasir Ris, Changi airport was in its vicinity. I was testing my drone and when my drone reached the altitude where flights usually fly. Singaporean law enforcement detected it, and about 15-20 minutes later, they even located the pilot. I was astounded that Singaporean authorities had the ability to detect not just drones but the pilot.” 

Even to this day, the Myanmar military surely does not own such a drone defense system.

Since the early phase of our revolution in February 2021, drones played an instrumental role, helping to produce visually stunning overhead footage of thousands of nonviolent

protestors in the streets. These photos and footage were widely recognized by both local and international media. 

Soon after, the purpose of drone usage quickly changed as young and creative activists used drones to spy on the junta’s movements. The peaceful protestors gained an unparalleled upper hand over the ruthless army, thanks to new technology strategically. As this signaled a turning point, the military council moved quickly to outlaw the use of drones in public. When this ban took place, the regime probably did not expect that it was the beginning of modern warfare. As the regime became more vulnerable to this type of technical assistance, it tried to prevent drone usage. 

When the peaceful protests were violently cracked down by brutal army forces, the streets of Myanmar were covered with the blood of its own citizens. The brutality of the regime pushed people to pick up arms to protect themselves from the coup regime. That was when the long journey for resistance fighters and their supporters had begun. At first, there were many people who did not believe in the armed revolution, including both local and international experts who did not believe that newly recruited fighters could topple the Myanmar military. Many assumed that the regime might have ruled the country with iron fists for decades the way other previous dictators did. Myanmar military also showed off that they were the strongest institution in the country which also ranked 38 in the global list. It has also experienced various insurgencies since Myanmar’s independence from the British empire. 

However, the resistance fighters’ deployment of unconventional tactics with a twist of advanced technology and creative innovation has been a nightmare for the Myanmar military. Three years after the coup, the resistance fighters’ creativity has evolved, and the unwavering financial and moral support of the citizens who love to see the end of the regime has sustained Myanmar’s armed revolution.

Local news quoted U Yee Mon, the NUG’s defense minister, that it had formed the Air Force on 7 September 2021. Some people joked about this statement while many shrugged that it was technically impossible. However, when the regime accelerated its aerial attacks on civilians, resistance groups invested time and energy to find ways to defend themselves from air strikes and establish capacity against the junta. In 2022, the NUG announced that Project Dragonfly, one of their fundraising campaigns for air defense, raised USD 2.2 million, and some funds had been used for aerial defense and counter-aerial offensive. Two years later in 2024, the public was amazed to hear the news of aerial drones infiltrating the air defense system of Nay Pyi Taw, the heart of the regime. Just a few days later, another drone attack which allegedly injured the regime’s second most important person was reported.

On the ground, the Myanmar army has been facing defeat left right and center even before these drone attacks by the resistance forces. With sponsorship of the NUG, independent resistance groups successfully waged drone war against the regime’s forces, and the attacks have been so impactful that the regime’s deputy home affairs minister admitted that their major threat in modern warfare is drone attack. Lieutenant General Ni Lin Aung, who also serves as the chief of Myanmar Police Force, made a comment at the 2023 Conference of Global Public Security Forum, which was held August last year in China’s Jiangsu province under the theme “One World, Common Security.” He said at the conference that “terrorist groups” are increasingly using drones worldwide, which is creating a challenge. He also suggested that it is essential to enhance regional and bilateral cooperation to prevent weapons, including drones, from falling into the hands of criminals and malicious groups worldwide, and that border controls should be strengthened to prevent so-called terrorist groups from receiving drones.

Why has the Myanmar army failed to prevent the resistance’s improvised drone war? One may wonder, and drone Engineer DES has an answer. He said, “If you want to defend drones in effective ways, you need money, technology and also connections. And even if you have money and connection, you must choose the right vendor. Otherwise, you’ll end up with low quality, inauthentic products.” 

It is true that resistance forces have managed to infiltrate Myanmar military’s jamming techniques in most of the scenarios. In some cases, we heard that the drone dropped the bombs right on the building where the jamming equipment was on top of it. 

U Maung Swe, deputy secretary of NUG’s Defense Ministry, recently told RFA Burmese that their drones can be easily used despite the junta’s jammers, because they know the jammer frequency of anti-drone guns used by the regime. The regime’s notorious generals may get rich by milking the institution dry but they are not willing to spend a penny to protect its troops and

subordinates. Apart from the ones to protect the VIPs, most of the drone-preventing equipment are bought from China and mostly second hand equipment or outdated ones. 

However, Aung Naing Soe shares a different perspective. He explained how bad the Myanmar army is losing in the technology war based on his experience. When he was in custody in Nay Pyi Taw, he met a so-called technical expert. “By that time we had been brought to the police station, an army officer who called himself as a technical expert came to the police station to inspect our drone. He could not even locate the data from the SD slot.” 

Having seen this, it did not come as a surprise for Aung Naing Soe to witness the junta troops being defeated by the resistance’s drone attacks due to their lack of knowledge of such innovative technology. 

Ironically, Myanmar’s is not the only army that faces losses in the drone battle. Russia, Myanmar’s devil brothers-in-arms, also encounters defeat due to Ukraine’s drone attack. However, Ukraine is fortunate because it has been supplied with the most sophisticated arms and weapons including cutting-edge kamikaze drones by some friendly nations. The international community has acknowledged that the Russia-Ukraine war is an invasion, hence, Ukraine has received tremendous support to defend its sovereignty from a powerful foreign country. 

Meanwhile, what has happened in Myanmar to this day is widely seen as merely an internal political turmoil. Despite this view from the outside world, people of Myanmar have time and again shown the world their eagerness to eradicate the fascist military regime from the country to build a better future. If the world applauds Ukraine for achieving victories against Russia with their citizens’ courage, Myanmar people are also winning the most brutal army in the region, minus the international help and arms supplies. 

DES explained, “While Ukraine troops use military-grade drones with fuel cells which can fly for up to 24-hours, Myanmar’s resistance fighters are using RC-grade lithium batteries in their improvised drones which inevitably limits the flight time due to the lack of high-tech support.”

“Imagine if the resistance groups are upgraded to use the fuel-cell power batteries, there will be more milestones,” he added.

In the latest propaganda film made by the Myanmar military, one of the soldier characters danced to Michael Jackson’s song Beat it as his outpost was crashed by the resistance forces (note: they used the term “terrorist” in the film) with bombs from drones. I honestly do not know what this particular scene intends to show. Probably, that character might have been suffering from shell shock, a form of PTSD due to active warfare. 

Reflecting the realities, my personal interpretation of this scene is that it is the Myanmar military admitting that drones have become a powerful threat in its fight with the resistance.

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