‘Four cuts’ strategy deepens Myanmar’s war wounds

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Myanmar is reconnecting with the outside world after decades of military rule. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win

Amidst heavy fighting and a mounting humanitarian crisis caused by the blockage of access to aid and assistance for an estimated 500,000 displaced people, there is one big beneficiary of Myanmar’s civil wars: the military.

Despite millions of dollars recently dedicated by foreign donors towards Myanmar peace process, the richly funded initiative has so far wholly failed to stop the country’s armed conflicts between ethnic armed organizations and government forces.

The Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, has leveraged the peace process to bolster its image and legitimacy. That’s been seen in top generals’ frequent visits to European and Asian capitals, and renewed strategic engagement with Western country’s that had previously sanctioned the Tatmadaw’s poor rights record.

Despite a recent flurry of human rights-related trainings staged by Western countries, the Tatmadaw seems to have drawn courage from this renewed engagement to conduct intense military offensives in ethnic states, including aerial bombardments that have hit civilian areas in northern Kachin State.

People displaced in the conflict between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar military for the control of an amber mine pass their time at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, Myanmar June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

People displaced by fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar military at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin State, June 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

With ramped up fighting against several ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan States, the Tatmadaw has reactivated its notorious “four cuts” counter-insurgency strategy that aims to cut off food, funds, intelligence and popular support of armed resistance groups fighting for self-determination.

The strategy was masterminded by former dictator General Ne Win, leader of the 1962 military coup and a trainee of the once occupying fascist Japanese Army. The four cuts strategy was inspired by Japan’s “three all”, or sanko seisaku, (“kill all, burn all, destroy all) tactics as examined in Donald Seekins’ Burma and Japan since 1940: From Co-Prosperity to Quiet Dialogue.

The army has cited its four cuts strategy as key to successfully forcing the insurgent Karen National Union out of the Irrawaddy Division and the Communist Party of Burma out of the Yoma mountain range into the Shan State in the 1970s. The strategy has since featured prominently in Tatmadaw training manuals on how to counter rebellions.

Myanmar's military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Myanmar’s military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

The problem with the four cuts doctrine is that it directly targets civilian populations in conflict zones. For example, the strategy was heavily used between 1996 and 1998 against the armed struggles in Shan State. In less than two years, over 1,400 villages were destroyed and more than 300,000 local residents displaced as a direct result of the strategy.

The strategy was recently revived in Kachin State when the renewed fighting broke out in mid-2011 with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) which is calling for a political dialogue with the government.

A 17-year ceasefire broke down when the Tatmadaw tried to force the KIA into becoming a state-controlled Border Guard Force, which would have granted the ethnic armed group mere local militia status with few business concessions in the resource and ecologically rich state.

Most recently, the four cuts strategy has been used in Tanai township in western Kachin state, known for its tiger reserve. In a bid to cut off the KIA’s food supply, the army has blocked transport of rice and gas into the township since mid-2016.

On June 5, the Tatmadaw air-dropped leaflets ordering locals to move out of the area so that it could conduct a clearance operation to “save the natural surrounding and the ecosystem.”

People displaced in the conflict between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar military for the control of an amber mine build a temporary shelter at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, Myanmar June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

People displaced in the conflict between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar military build a temporary shelter at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, Myanmar June 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

The Tatmadaw already controls much of the Tanai area through its linked Yuzana Corporation, which allegedly took more than 200,000 acres of land from local indigenous communities through gold mining and logging permits granted by the state dating as far back as 2010.

The clearance operation now underway in the region aims to cut off one of the KIA’s key funding streams as the armed group collects a 5% tax on mines operating in its controlled areas, according to a Democratic Voice of Burma report. The rice blockage, which has caused a surge in prices, has taken a heavier toll on the local population.

Two Kachin villagers near Tanai were gunned down in early June for reportedly providing rice to KIA soldiers, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity to Asia Times.

In a bid to cut the KIA’s information flows, local Kachin communities have been targeted and harassed based on their ethnicity. When recently displaced Kachins from a village near a now deserted former KIA post (the name of the village is withheld to protect residents from reprisals) were told by a senior military officer to move to a public hall guarded by heavily armed police officials for their “protection.”

People displaced in the conflict between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar military for the control of an amber mine pass their time at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, Myanmar June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Internally displaced people at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, Myanmar June 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

That also includes from probing journalists, who are now being targeted for their checking and balancing roles in conflict areas. Three local journalists were recently detained and face potential prison sentences under the Unlawful Association Act, a colonial era law, for communicating with a local insurgent outfit the government has branded a “terrorist group.”

More than 116 people have been arbitrarily detained and charged under the law in Kachin and Northern Shan States over the past year for allegedly collaborating with so-called “enemies of the state”, according to the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, a rights group. Some of the detainees have allegedly been tortured while in detention, the group claims.

Despite a recent flurry of human rights-related trainings staged by Western countries, the Tatmadaw seems to have drawn courage from this renewed engagement to conduct intense military offensives in ethnic states.

Military-perpetuated rights abuses in conflict areas are thus not isolated incidents but rather part and parcel of the Tatmadaw’s counterinsurgency strategy. No amount of human rights training by the US, EU or international military counterparts will be able to change the Tatmadaw’s abusive culture so long as the four cuts strategy is its prevailing paradigm.

But as the West seeks to engage Myanmar’s military in the pursuit of peace and broader commercial and strategic interests, its member states should not shy from speaking out against the same abusive practices in ethnic areas it had until recently penalized through strict sanctions against the previous military regime.

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