Myanmar’s new national security adviser Thaung Tun announced on February 15 that the major military operation launched in western Rakhine State in response to an insurgent attack on border police is now over and that security responsibilities have reverted to the police.
Following the savagery of the security force crackdown on the Rohingya community over the last quarter of 2016, any suggestion of a restoration of normalcy in the restive region would be welcome news to the international community.
Western governments have been torn between public outrage over the atrocities reportedly visited on the Rohingya population on the one hand, and on the other their own unwillingness to criticize or isolate the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi — an administration which remains conspicuously unwilling or unable to criticize or call to account the country’s errant military.
As observers in Yangon are aware, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, will continue to call all the shots in Rakhine. Under the 2008 Constitution, the military retains autonomous control over the defense, border affairs and home ministries, not to mention a 25% block in parliament.
If, as now seems likely, a low-intensity Rohingya insurgency develops in the coming months, army units will undoubtedly be on hand to intervene rapidly in any flash points. Exactly how many security forces are now operating in the sprawling western state is unclear but independent analysts estimate somewhere in the region of over 20,000 troops.
Normally, the army’s Western Command based at An in the center of the state controls three Military Operations Commands (MOCs) – each comprising 10 under-strength battalions – based at Taungup in the far south, Kyauktaw in the center and Buthidaung in the now volatile north.
Already contending with a Rakhine Buddhist insurgency in central parts of the state, the army and state police have been significantly reinforced since October, including with elements from the Tatmadaw’s strategic fire-fighting reserve of Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs). Battalions of the 66th LID are now understood to have reinforced local units in the area.
Unusually, the recent counter-insurgency campaign in the mainly Rohingya townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung has often involved joint operations. These have brought together military, police (both para-military Border Guard Police and state police) and naval marines under army command and control, probably reflecting a lack of local intelligence in a region where the army has not conducted major counter-insurgency operations for decades.
The result, however, has arguably been the most serious public relations debacle suffered by the Myanmar military since its massacre of pro-democracy protestors in 1988. Against the backdrop of nearly 70,000 Rohingyas fleeing into Bangladesh, a force whose human rights record faced Western sanctions for decades now stands again in the dock of international public opinion for what the United Nations has reported were likely “crimes against humanity.”
The prospects of a military of this caliber successfully containing an embryonic insurgency are not good. At a basic level, the doctrinal challenges of an overwhelmingly ethnic Burman Tatmadaw adapting to a politically sensitive and necessarily carefully calibrated counter-insurgency mission in a majority Muslim region inhabited by the widely disparaged ethnic Rohingya are daunting.
“Doctrinally they’re back in the Dark Ages,” noted one foreign military official, adding bluntly: “They’ve got no idea about counter-insurgency.”
At one level, the counter-insurgency operations that have molded the Tatmadaw over the decades emerged from a range of essentially colonial brush-wars across the country’s northern and eastern borderlands. Those conflicts have never been about winning hearts-and-minds but rather about the imposition of centralized state control by an ethnic Burman majority and an overwhelmingly Burman army over minority peoples.
Military campaigns in those regions have generally involved semi-conventional operations against well-armed, uniformed rebels operating at platoon, company and even battalion levels. In those conflicts — including the ongoing wars in northern Shan and Kachin States — the Tatmadaw has deployed a full panoply of military power, including infantry, artillery, armor and, more recently, air power.
Where control of civilian populations has been required, the military has typically relied on the so-called “four cuts” doctrine – a strategy first developed during counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s against communist rebels in ethnic Burman regions that aimed at cutting insurgents off from food, funds, intelligence or recruits from potentially sympathetic local villages.
In the rugged minority-dominated north and east, where the focus of conflict has shifted since the 1970s, standard operating procedure has typically relied on brutal “area clearance campaigns.” These have typically involved the burning of villages, persistent reports of women raped and men forced to serve as porters, and the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians driven across international borders.
The response to the October attacks on Border Guard Police posts in Rakhine State has predictably fallen back on these time-tested methods – with the salient difference that in northern Rakhine the enemy consists of the Rohingya, Muslims many ethnic Burmans consider illegal immigrants in Myanmar. That has apparently encouraged a level of indiscriminate savagery that has been unusual even by Tatmadaw standards.
Compounding the doctrinal weaknesses in a racially and religiously charged conflict is an equally serious crisis surrounding operational intelligence. This, again, is hardly unique to Rakhine State: security crises in northeast Kokang in early 2015 as well as in northern Shan state in November 2016 both revealed disastrous failures of military intelligence.
Compounding the doctrinal weaknesses in a racially and religiously charged conflict is an equally serious crisis surrounding operational intelligence.
These intelligence shortcomings permitted large guerrilla forces operating in the hundreds to catch the military entirely off-guard and inflict major reverses before Tatmadaw reinforcements could wrest back lost ground.
If these failings have been true with regard to well-organized standing units of insurgents, whose order of battle and areas of operation should be closely monitored by local Tatmadaw commanders, they will inevitably pose a far greater problem for security forces facing an essentially clandestine militancy in northern Rakhine.
In this new security environment, government forces will have to combat small cells of insurgents, likely based in villages and operating in plain clothes, with an organizational structure and logistical support networks which to date have remained largely opaque.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based analyst and security consultant