Why Can’t Aung San Suu Kyi End Burma’s Brutal Counterinsurgency?
“They shot and killed my husband and injured other villagers. The soldiers burned down our houses and killed and ate our animals. They also burned our rice barn, destroying 190 tins of rice.”
“I saw the military burning the houses and shooting people who were fleeing. When someone came in front of them, they shot them. Everyone was running. They [the military] were firing on the crowd. My son was wounded by a bullet. He was hit while running away. He was shot in the thigh. He fell … Then the helicopter came and started shooting. No one could stop them. Everyone was just running … ”
The first quotation is from a refugee who fled the Burmese military’s operations against Karen National Union — the KNU — in eastern Burma in 1992. The second comes from a Rohingya-Muslim refugee fleeing the Burmese military’s current counterinsurgency campaign in Rakhine State.
Such brutality during counterinsurgency operations in 1992 were not surprising to anyone since most operations during the Burmese military’s five decades of rule bore similar patterns. In fact, in the 1980s in Rakhine State — what was then called Arakan State — more than 200,000 Muslim civilians were displaced by the Burmese military’s operations and repeatedly subjected to mass rape and massacres as they fled to the Bangladesh boarder.
But when Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in March 2016, shortly after the first real democratic election since 1960, most in the international community were hopeful that there would be a change to counterinsurgency practices. Suu Kyi has won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy demonstrations challenging the military junta—for which she spent over two decades under house arrest.
How could it be that a military operation that took place just a few years after Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize could bear so much semblance to the current campaign in Rakhine State?
Burma’s constitution, which was written by the military junta in 2008, is a good place to look. By 2003 the military leadership, which had been in power since 1962, decided to slowly liberalize the country, ostensibly to ease international sanctions that were crippling the economy.
But the military was worried about giving too much power over domestic politics to civilian politicians, and was completely unwilling to cede any control over military operations. Thus, while the constitution does allow some control over domestic law to civilian authority — for instance the constitution mandates only 25 percent of parliamentary seats go to the military — active military officers hold absolute control over military operations and the defense budget.
The three ministries that actually plan, fund and carry out military operations — Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs — legally can only be run by military officers. Further, the constitution allows military officers to take control of the government if they were to unilaterally declare a “state of emergency.”
Finally, the military’s hold of 25 percent of parliament precludes any changes to the constitution that might erode control.
In short, Suu Kyi does not have the power to stop or change the counterinsurgency campaign in Rakhine State.
Still, this answer does not fully explain why the military continues to use such brutal tactics despite the fact that doing so may bring back Burma’s pariah status, and with it sanctions. Related, this answer also does not fully explain why the Burmese military is so unwilling to allow any civilian input on counterinsurgency operations.
Fully answering these questions requires an understanding of the Burmese military’s role in the government since independence, and how they have fought insurgent groups since 1948. But first it is important to have a general understanding of how military organizations evolve.
Communist insurgents in Burma in 1963. Photo via Wikipedia
Columbia University professor Austin Long’s recent book on the evolution of militaries, The Soul of Armies, argues that most are unable to shake the lessons learned from wars fought during their formative years — meaning the period in which militaries begin to professionalize their officer corps through standardized training and other practices aimed at unifying the organization.
For instance, the German military’s professionalization began in the latter half of the 19th century, and was largely informed by the lessons during the Wars of German Unification.
Trough training, the lessons of these wars created an organizational-culture among the German officer corps that preferred “a mass mobilization army led by a technocratic officer corps … directive command rather than detailed order, and … rapid maneuver to achieve decisive battles of encirclement and annihilation.”
Despite changes in the international system, technology, society, and even the German government, this organizational culture informed strategies like the Schlieffen Plan during World War I and Blitzkrieg operations during World War II.
But like many former colonies, Burma’s military did not begin to professionalize until the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this period that the government of Burma faced the most severe threat of being overthrown by multiple ethnic insurgent groups.
The most powerful, and longest lasting of the insurgents was undoubtedly the Karen National Union. It was during these early battles with the KNU and its allies that led to the formulation of the Burmese army’s brutal counterinsurgency strategy, known as the “four cuts.”
This strategy involved depleting an insurgent organization’s ability to survive by cutting off “food, funds, intelligence and recruits.” These operations involved cordon and searching operations, intentional displacement of civilians and scorched-earth tactics.
Though not a formal part of the “four cuts,” the strategy usually featured massacres of civilians, and mass rape. It seems from the reporting thus far on the current counterinsurgency operation in Rakhine State, the Burmese military is implementing the “four cuts” strategy there, too.
Although brutal, officers in the 1960s viewed the strategy as successful and thus trained their predecessors to use the “four cuts” when fighting any insurgent organization.
But there are a few reasons why some analysts may question why the Burmese military viewed the “four cuts” as successful. Others may question how the strategy stayed in place for so long, especially when considering the evolution of the political goals of the ruling regime.
First is the fact that the Burmese military fought numerous ethnic insurgent groups almost uninterrupted from independence up to the present. The KNU in particular fought from 1949 until 2011.
But the duration of the conflict — and the KNU’s fight, in particular — don’t necessarily point to a failure of the “four cuts” operations, but instead point to the sheer complexity of a civil war featuring dozens of insurgent groups fought by a poorly-resourced military.
Second, delving into the details of particular cases of insurgent collapse or surrender, some analysts may identify internal organizational deficiencies as the main reason for this outcome, and not offensive “four cuts” operations. For instance, it is possible point to fracturing within the KNU and between its allies as the main reason for the its surrender in 2011.
However, a more detailed look at the evolution of the fight between the Burmese military and the KNU show that this fracturing was ultimately caused by reductions in the KNU’s military and economic power due to “four cuts” offensives.
Third, the adoption of the “four cuts” strategy might be confusing to the western conception of counterinsurgency operations, which sees such brutality as counterproductive. Although academic studies are mixed on whether “restraint” or “brutality” will more likely lead to success, it is possible that the Burmese military could have implemented a more restrained offensive strategy and still have been successful.
But that is not the point being made here. For reasons outside the scope of this article, the Burmese military chose to implement the “four cuts” at the formative point in their organizational history, and doing so undoubtedly saved the regime from being taken over by insurgents.
Had the military chosen “restraint” and won, current operations in the Rakhine State would likely be very different. But officers chose the “four cuts” in the 1960s, and over the next 60 years, used the strategy to defeat dozens of insurgent groups, resulting in the strategy providing mainly positive feedback as Burma’s military organization evolved.
Finally, although successful strategies during a military’s formative years can create path-dependency, MIT Professor Barry Posen finds in his book The Sources of Military Doctrine that intervention by domestic civilian politicians can force a military to change how campaigns are fought.
In the case of Burma, civilian intervention had the opposite effect. Officers continue to believe that Burma would have been overrun by insurgents in the 1960s had their predecessors not overthrown the democratically elected civilian government.
Therefore, although the Burmese military has an economic incentive to liberalize the state, the organizational-culture among officers leads them to believe that changing counterinsurgency strategy for the sake of outside actors — whether from international or domestic — is a threat to the survival of the regime.
A detailed look into how the Burmese military’s counterinsurgency strategy evolved will help explain these four points more clearly. Focusing in on the military’s fight against the KNU provides the clearest illustration of the military’s evolution.
A Burmese soldier, at right, training in Pakistan. Photo via Wikipedia
The birth of a military
After nearly two years of negotiations with Prime Minster U Nu’s civilian-run government, in January 1949 the KNU began their rebellion by taking control of the strategically important district of Toungoo — not far from the capitol in Rangoon.
The government almost immediately purged the military of all ethnic Karen officers, who had staffed the top positions in the military. This left the military’s new leader, Gen. Ne Win, a blank slate from which to create a new military.
However, this also meant that Ne Win was simultaneously attempting to restructure his military while also fighting numerous insurgent organization spread throughout the country.
Over the next three years the military won back large swaths of KNU territory, including Mandalay, and villages in the delta area near the capitol, mainly using ill-trained militias and paying off local leaders.
Thus, these victories weren’t really a part of any unified strategy by the military.
However, a major offensive against remaining KNU units in 1952 signaled that Ne Win’s military was finally unifying into a cohesive organization. For the first time the Burmese military mounted a coordinated attacked using gunboats, planes and tanks.
While the combined-arms attack was fairly successful, the KNU mounted a fierce resistance in the villages. The Burmese military was only able to force KNU fighters out of the area after resorting scorched earth tactics.
Repeating the same tactics, the Burmese military then turned to the southwest and forced the last major KNU force from many major towns in the delta.
Prior to this battle the officers in the Burmese military had been a party to the use of brutal scorched earth tactics while leading the militias fighting the KNU. But the use of this tactic was mostly on an ad hoc basis.
However, as we will see, the success of scorched earth during the Burmese military’s first real complex offensive operation meant that this brutal tactic would slowly become a part of doctrine going forward. In fact, this operation occurred at the point in history when the Burmese military began to standardize training and formulate clear doctrine.
Karen women in the 1920s. Photo via Wikipedia
A poisonous alliance
Having their power massively reduced by the 1952 offensive, the KNU sought an informal alliance with the Communist Party of Burma. The alliance with the CPB initially increased the strength of the KNU, allowing them to retake some towns in the delta, but ultimately led to one of the most detrimental internal fractures in the KNU’s history.
The point of contention was between leftist Karen who believed the alliance would allow for the implementation of communist ideology that would strengthen the cohesion of KNU members, while right-leaning Karen believed adopting communism would be detrimental to the organization by prohibiting potential support from western powers.
By 1953, the split began to take form when leftist Karens founded the Karen National United Party — the KNUP — as a distinct communist organization within the Karen liberation movement.
The split further intensified after a brutal government offensive in 1955 in eastern Burma forced the right-leaning KNU to retreat deep into the remote Dawana Range, which caused a significant geographic separation from the KNUP based in the central delta region. While still maintaining some coordination with the KNU, the separation forced the KNUP to rely more heavily on support from the CPB.
But it was a massive shift in civil-military relations in Burma’s government that ultimately led to the complete fracturing of the KNU and the KNUP.
U Nu’s offer of a general amnesty to all rebels in 1958 was the final straw for officers in the field who felt that civilian control was impeding their ability to crush the rebellion through offensive operations.
In an attempt to avoid a destabilizing violent coup, Ne Win took control of the government with U Nu’s consent on September 26, 1958. The deal between the two men allowed Ne Win to hold power until the imminent threat from multiple insurgent groups was quelled. Once security was restored, Ne Win was to hold democratic elections.
Upon taking the reins of government Ne Win unleashed his field officers. The military’s brutal operations against the KNUP in the delta forced them to take the unprecedented step of officially allying with the CPB as well as mounting coordinated military operations against the government.
Following these moves, the KNU leadership cut almost all ties with the KNUP, effectively losing a significant number of their fighters and leaders in one of the most strategically important areas in Burma.
Still, at this point in the history it was still possible that KNU and KNUP could eventually ally again in the future. Such shifts in alliances are generally common in civil wars featuring multiple insurgents, and quite common in Burma in particular.
A Burmese refugee camp in Thailand. Photo via Wikipedia
By 1960, many of the insurgencies had been somewhat contained, so Ne Win held general elections. In a surprise to many, U Nu won the election. But two years later Ne Win felt that civilian control had given renewed strength to the insurgencies, and thus took over the government. This time, however, the military junta would remain in power until 2010.
Fighting had been ongoing against the KNUP throughout the 1960s, but in 1968 the Burmese military mounted its first full-spectrum “four cuts” strategy in the delta. Again, up to this point the use of scorched earth tactics was on an ad hoc basis. And in 1966 the military did implement a “test-run” of the “four cuts” in northeast Kachin State against the Kachin Independence Organization — costing the lives of thousands.
But the “four cuts” offensive beginning in 1968 showed that Burmese army’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics had finally evolved into a clear and coherent strategy.
In theory, “four cuts” offensives began with Burmese troops cordoning off a village occupied by insurgents. An attempt was then made to clear the area of civilians and place them into villages occupied by Burmese troops.
With this accomplished, the village was then designated a “free-fire” zone in which all inhabitants could be treated as hostile. Finally, the village was usually destroyed so neither insurgents nor their supporters could use it for shelter or resources.
But in practice, civilians were not always removed before villages were turned into free-fire zones, and many died of starvation and disease after being displaced. Massacres and wide-spread rape were common during these operations, and thousands more were enslaved by the military and forced to carry supplies across brutal terrain.
Still, the “four cuts” offensives in the delta beginning in 1968 were extraordinarily effective. As stated earlier, scorched earth had been used in the past, but the comprehensive nature of the new strategy threw CPB and KNUP leaders into a state of confusion and chaos.
Within three years both the KNUP and the CPB were effectively wiped out. About 600 die-hard KNUP fighters held their ground until the Burmese military launched Operation Aung Soe Moe in 1974. Only about 150 survivors of the offensive from the KNUP returned to the KNU in the east, but the CPB’s forces in central Burma were completely annihilated.
This was a huge victory for the Burmese military. Not only had they defeated the strongest insurgency in the most strategically important area of Burma, but had also destroyed the KNU’s ability to re-form a significant alliance with the KNUP. In short, the biggest threat to the regime’s survival had been crushed, and was done so utilizing the “four cuts.”
Defeating the KNUP and CPB in the difficult terrain in the delta would be impressive for any military. But the fact that the poorly resourced, and recently rebuilt Burmese military was able to accomplish this victory while also fighting numerous insurgencies spread from Kachin State in the northeast to Arakan State in the southwest, was nothing short a miraculous.
Just to put this in perspective, Burma is twice the size of Vietnam and has similar terrain.
Another lesson learned from this victory was that overthrowing the democratically elected government allowed for military operations to be conducted more efficiently, and ultimately saved Burma from being taken over by insurgents.
Aung San Suu Kyi, at right, with British foreign minster Boris Johnson in 2016. Photo via Wikipedia
The slow death of the guerrillas
Fighting on multiple fronts meant that the Burmese military was unable to mount any serious operations against the KNU, who were based in the remote foot hills of the eastern Dawana Range. The KNU was still too weak to mount large-scale conventional offensives as they had in the past, but by 1971, Karen leaders had built a considerable guerrilla army.
But in the 1970s the government faced far more threatening insurgencies than the KNU.
Although “four cuts” operations were carried out against the KNU beginning in 1975, most of these were not sustained due to the military’s allocation of resources toward fighting the CPB and its allies in Arakan State — now known as Rakhine State — in the southwest as well as CPB and KIO insurgents in the northeast.
But by 1980 the Arakan-based insurgents were decimated. The “four cuts” operations had reduced the CPB’s forces in the area from 1,000 down to 64. As stated previously, thousands of civilians were displaced, and mass rapes and massacres were common.
After the defeat of the CPB and its allies in Arakan State, the CPB’s northeast division was still a significant threat to the government. It was here that the CPB had been directly supported by China for decades.
But all of that was about to change.
The 1979 Min Yan Aung-I offensive massively depleted the power of the CPB. China sensed the tied was changing in Burma and signed a trade pact with Ne Win that same year, and began to pull back support of the CPB.
Out of desperation the CPB began to funding itself through the opium trade, which caused China to officially end all support to the CPB in 1981. Although the CPB continued to fight until 1989 when the majority of its foot soldier mutinied, the CPB’s threat to the government was on a massive decline from this point forward.
By the early 1980s the KNU had strengthened their military forces through an alliance with numerous ethnic insurgencies, as well as establishing a black-market trade route with Thailand.
Thus, with the CPB’s strength waning and the KNU’s on the rise, the full might of the Burmese military was directed once more to the east.
According to journalist Martin Smith, who made many trips to KNU territory in the 1980s, the “four cuts” campaign in southeast Burma in the years 1984 to 1990 “was without doubt one of the most brutal military operations since independence.”
Still, the KNU’s trade routes along the Thai border were difficult for the Burmese military to disrupt. So, the military decided instead to deplete the KNU’s resources by essentially clearing the Dawana range of all inhabitants. Stories of mass rape and massacres were well documented as thousands of Karen and refuges from other ethnic groups associated with the insurgencies poured over the Thai border.
By 1988 when the democratic uprising took place in Rangoon, the KNU and its allies were exhausted. Many protesters fleeing the massacres in the capitol joined the KNU’s ranks, helping to keep the waning insurgency afloat. However, the much weaker allies of the KNU could fight no longer and signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 1989.
From this point forward, the KNU’s insurgency was extraordinarily weak. The “four cuts” campaign not only caused its allies to surrender, but also reduced the KNU’s annual resources by 60 percent. This was mainly due to the fact that the military had destroyed hundreds of villages and displaced thousands of ethnic Karen, which massively reduced the ability of the KNU to collect taxes from its population
This was a turning point for the KNU. From 1948 into the 1960s the KNU fought an all-out conventional war with the government, during which they were able to conquer territory. From the 1960s into the 1980s the KNU’s reduction in power meant that they were relegated to a defensive posture, fighting mainly using a mix of guerrilla and conventional tactics.
But from the early 1990s onward the KNU’s power was on a clear downward trajectory, causing KNU leaders to periodically negotiate an end to the conflict with the government, while also attempting to gain more leverage in negotiations through guerrilla attacks.
Unfortunately for the KNU, each major “four cuts” operation, the first between 1995 and 1998, and the second between 2005 and 2008, put them in a weaker position at the negotiating table.
KNU leaders met with the government nine times between 1995 and 1998, signed one informal ceasefire in 2003 that was broken shortly thereafter, and singed one more short-lived ceasefire in 2006 — two years before the final offensive against the KNU.
By 2008 the Burmese military decided that the KNU was not longer a real threat, and pulled back most of its troops from the area. With the somewhat democratic election of Thein Sein in 2010, the KNU — with no other real choice — met for negotiations. By 2012 one of the longest insurgencies in modern history was essentially ended in the signing of a ceasefire deal between the KNU and the government.
Today the KNU continues to maintain some autonomy over its territory in Kayin State, and continues to participate in the peace process.
At the time of this writing the last two remaining active insurgencies in Burma are the Kachin Independence Organization in Kachin State, and the Harakat Al-Yaqin insurgents in northern Rakhine State.
The KIO signed a ceasefire in 1994, and only returned to fighting in 2011 after the Burmese government attempted to force them into government-controlled Boarder Guard Force. As stated above, the Harakat Al-Yaqin insurgents formed after inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Neither are an existential threat to the regime’s survival.
But it is important to note that over sixty years of fighting, the Burmese military has defeated or forced into surrender over sixty insurgent organizations spread out over 260,000 square miles in some of the most difficult terrain anywhere on the planet.
By comparison, according to Sandford Universities Mapping Militant Organizations project, there have been 16 main insurgent organization fighting the Syrian government — though five are now inactive — over 71,000 square miles.
Considering the history of the Burmese military’s role in government, and its decades of improbable victories over so many insurgents—including when the regime was at its most vulnerable and the military was in its formative years—it is difficult to imagine any changes to the brutal campaign in Rakhine State.