Small Wars Journal

Socio-Economic Counterinsurgency in Burma

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 1:15am

Socio-Economic Counterinsurgency in Burma

Moe Gyo


Shortly after the independence of Burma (aka Myanmar) and the establishment of the Union of Burma in 1948, armed conflict began between the Bamar ethnic people (“Bamars”) and non-Bamar ethnic people (“ethnic people”). The Bamars traditionally occupied the central lowlands and considered themselves as the dominant ethnic group in the country.  During World War II, they fought alongside the Japanese against the Allied forces. The present civilian leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a Bamar as are much of the generals in the Tatmadaw (Burma military). The ethnic people, such as the Mon, Karen, Karenni, Shan, Kachin, Palaung, Naga, Pa Oh, Chin, and Arakan, live in the peripheral hill and border areas of the country. They fought with, and otherwise supported, the Allies during World War II.


Under the British, these two groups were governed separately. The Bamars, in Ministerial/Proper Burma, were under the direct control of the British while the ethnic people, in the Frontier Areas, were governed by the British through their traditional leaders. These ethnic leaders were given a large measure of self-autonomy by the British and exercised day-to-day administration.

When the Bamars and ethnic people came together to form the Union of Burma in 1948, the ethnic people were promised a continuation of their self-autonomy and also given an option to leave the Union after ten years should they see that the promises, made at the time of Union, had not been fulfilled. They were given this secession option because of their fear of Bamar dominance.  This fear of Bamar dominance crystallized over subsequent years as the resultant Union government became increasingly centralized under the Bamars. Fourteen years after independence, some ethnic leaders met in 1962 to discuss the lack of the promised self-autonomy and what actions should be undertaken, to include possibly invoking the secession option. Immediately, the Bamar-dominated Tatmadaw mounted a coup and took over the government which it directly held until 2011.


The popular masses are like water, and the army is like a fish. How then can it be said that when there is water, a fish will have difficulty in preserving its existence?

-- Mao Zedong

The “Bamarization” and militarization of the government gave rise to a proliferation of insurgent ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and continuous conflicts through successive military, quasi-military, and civilian governments. The key issues remain related to the ethnic people’s aspirations for the self-autonomy and ethnic equality promised to them when they joined with the Bamars to establish the Union of Burma. The EAOs represent and advance these social, economic/resource, political, security, and territorial interests of their respective ethnic group.

Over the subsequent decades after independence, the EAOs fought initially for independence and later for self-autonomy. In recent years, the EAOs have primarily been engaged in defensive operations to protect their populations, territories, and security and economic interests. Thus, in the ethnic conflict areas, the Burma Government and EAOs have been competing for the hearts and minds of the ethnic people in respect to:

  • Authority over population and territory
  • Exploitation of natural resources
  • Control of roads, trade routes, construction contracts, land, and other lucrative opportunities

Presently, there are twenty-one EAOs fighting against the Burma Government and Tatmadaw. One or more of the following EAOs are in ten of the fourteen administrative states/regions that comprise the country:

  • All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (1)
  • Arakan Army-Arakan National Council (2)
  • Arakan Army-United League of Arakan (3)
  • Arakan Liberation Army (1)
  • Chin National Army (1)
  • Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (1)
  • Kachin Independence Army (3)
  • Karen National Liberation Army (1)
  • Karenni Army (2)
  • KNU/KNLA Peace Council (1)
  • Lahu Democratic Union (2)
  • Mon National Liberation Army (2)
  • Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army (3)
  • National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (2)
  • National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (2)
  • Pa Oh National Liberation Army (1)
  • Shan State Army-North (2)
  • Shan State Army- South (1)
  • Ta’ang National Liberation Army (3)
  • United Wa State Army (2)
  • Wa National Army (2)

Notes: 1. Multilateral Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Burma Government. 2. Bilateral ceasefire agreement with the Burma Governmen. 3. Ongoing fighting with the Tatmadaw.

The number of soldiers in an EAO ranges from a few hundred to over 30,000 in the United Wa State Army which also has another 30,000 or so in reserves. The total number of soldiers, under arms of these EAOs, is around 80,000 not counting reserves. Opposing them, are an estimated 400,000 soldiers in the Tatmadaw with about another 30,000-50,000 soldiers in allied border guard forces (BGFs), people’s militia forces (PMFs), and private militias. Conflicts against an individual EAO or an EAO alliance may involve any combination of the Tatmadaw, BGFs, PMFs, private militias, and even other EAOs who have signed ceasefire agreements with the Burma Government.

The EAOs have a typical symbiotic insurgency relationship between their popular ethnic support base and themselves. The ethnic people provide money, food/supplies, new recruits, and intelligence while the EAOs provide military protection, advancement of social, economic, and political aspirations, and social services (e.g., health and education).

Supplementing their funding from their popular support base, the EAOs fund themselves from among the following revenue sources:

  • Extractive industries (e.g., logging, and mining)
  • Taxation of trade, property, business, and transit
  • Cross-border trade and customs collections
  • Agribusinesses
  • Commercial businesses
  • Diaspora donations

Moreover, in this and other respects, some EAOs operate parallel governments in areas not controlled by the Burma Government and are quite sophisticated in their quasi-states of a state-within-a state. The Karen National Union, an EAO, has civilian administrators at the district and township levels in the areas that it controls in two states and two regions of Eastern Burma.  It also has the following departments:

  • Agriculture
  • Breeding and Fishery
  • Defense
  • Education and Culture
  • Finance and Revenue
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Forestry
  • Health and Welfare
  • Interior and Religious Affairs (incl. Karen National Police Force)
  • Justice
  • Mining
  • Organizing and Information
  • Transportation and Communications

Counterinsurgency: Dry Up the Water

The Tatmadaw demands that the EAOs to “give up their arms and return to the legal fold” and otherwise engage in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). In contrast, the EAOs want DDR as a component of security sector reform with the Tatmadaw coming under civilian control, giving up its political role and strategic culture of the “guardians of the country”, and downsizing its presence in the ethnic-dominated areas to that of a country at peace. The Tatmadaw’s strategic culture, developed during the 1958-60 Caretaker Period, holds that only it can keep the country together given the country is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual. It considers politicians to be self-serving and incompetent to handle the complex affairs of the state, especially in regard to the ethnic people. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw feels that the people are easily swayed by personality politics and the false promises of politicians.

To confront the EAO insurgencies, the Tatmadaw employs various military counter-insurgency strategies, ceasefire agreements, and EAO to BGF/PMF conversion programs. In their military counterinsurgency, the Tatmadaw has delineated EAO territories into black zones (EAO-controlled areas), brown zones (contested by both the Tatmadaw and EAOs), and white zones (Tatmadaw-controlled areas). The Tatmadaw seeks to transform a black zone into a brown zone, that is, transform an EAO-controlled area, where the Tatmadaw operates, to a Tatmadaw-controlled area where the EAOs operate. Next through a Close-Clear-Control Strategy, the Tatmadaw mounts operations to transform a brown zone into a white zone which is cleared of any EAO activities and controlled by the Tatmadaw. The white, or militarized, zones are solidified through Tatmadaw camps and allied local BGFs and PMFs which are given authority over territory and population as well as various legal and illegal economic concessions.

In the black and brown zones, the Tatmadaw employs a Four-Cuts Counterinsurgency Strategy to “cut” the funds, food/supplies, new recruits, and intelligence provided by ethnic villagers to the EAOs by systematically terrorizing, impoverishing, and exploiting the villagers. The Tatmadaw wants the ethnic people to be illiterate, sick, impoverished, and mentally distressed so they must struggle for day-to-day survival and do not have the will or means to support the EAOs. Thus, the Tatmadaw seeks to dry up the water (popular support base) in which the fish (EAOs) swim.

Supplementing the Four-Cuts Counterinsurgency Strategy, the Tatmadaw has an unofficial self-sufficiency policy which encourages local Tatmadaw units to supplement their meager supplies by “living off the land”.  This is the establishment of a parasitic relationship whereas these Tatmadaw units “live off” local ethnic villagers through forced labor and portering, and the uncompensated taking of food, animals, land, money, and valuables. The Tatmadaw also makes their life unbearable to coerce them to move into Tatmadaw-controlled so-called “peace” villages and relocation sites near Tatmadaw camps.  Thus, these villagers are also forced to focus upon daily survival rather than supporting the EAOs. Moreover, it is easier for the Tatmadaw to exploit their “living over the land” policy with the ethnic villages relocated next to their camps.

The Tatmadaw, in these counterinsurgency operations, has committed many human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in respect to the ethnic people including the widespread destruction of property, forced labor, use of human shields/minesweepers, extortion or arbitrary taxation, torture, murder, and rape. The Immunity Clause in the 2008 Constitution confers immunity to Tatmadaw soldiers for any and all actions by them.

The Tatmadaw uses the ceasefires to advance strategic positions, reinforce military camps, increase manpower and armaments, and extend reconnaissance. It frequently violates the ceasefires for tactical military advantages.

Under the ceasefire agreements, the EAOs typically retain arms, control/administer territories and populations, and are, officially and unofficially, given legal and illegal concessional access in respect to:

  • Extractive industries - logging and mining (including gems)
  • Commercial business (e.g.,  casinos, hotels, and real estate) and agribusiness
  • Taxation of persons, property, business, trade, and transit
  • Cross-border trade and customs collections

The Burma Government offers economic concessions, in conjunction with ceasefire agreements, to convert EAOs into Tatmadaw-controlled BGFs or PMFs. The BGFs/ PMFs are provided with salaries, rations, uniforms, and weapons. They are utilized to control local ethnic populations and territories, and participate in counterinsurgency operations under the Tatmadaw. The BGFs/PMFs may also be employed as buffers between regular Tatmadaw forces and the EAOs. This is especially evident in Shan State where Tatmadaw-controlled PMFs serve as buffers between the Tatmadaw and the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA). In much the same way, the USWA uses two EAOs - Shan State Army (North) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army - as its own buffers against Tatmadaw forces.  Both receive arms from the UWSA and are seen by many as a proxy fighting force for the UWSA in addition to the protection of their own people and the advancement of their ethnic people’s social economic and political aims.

Socio-Economic Counterinsurgency

Over the past three decades, social-economic counterinsurgency has been utilized quite successful by the Burma Government and Tatmadaw to weaken the insurgent EAOs and extend the Burma Government’s administrative and territorial control into the insurgent ethnic areas. Ceasefires with socio-economic incentives are skillfully employed to manage and temporarily neutralize targeted EAOs and allow valuable Tatmadaw resources to redeployment elsewhere, delay political reform, and degrade the EAOs’ economic and popular support bases. For example:

  • During 1989-1993, economic incentives, in conjunction with ceasefire agreements, were given to the armed groups, formerly associated with the Communist Party of Burma, so as to stabilize these insurgent areas such that active Tatmadaw counterinsurgency operations could be undertaken elsewhere in North, East, and West Burma.
  • During 1994-2011, economic incentives, in conjunction with ceasefire agreements, were given to the EAOs in North Burma so as to stabilize these insurgent areas such that active Tatmadaw counterinsurgency operations could be undertaken against the EAOs in East and West Burma.
  • From 2012 to the present, socio-economic incentives, in conjunction with ceasefire agreements, have been given to the EAOs in East and West Burma so as to stabilize these insurgent areas such that active Tatmadaw counterinsurgency operations can be undertaken against the EAOs in North Burma.

The Tamadaw’s socio-economic counterinsurgency strategy employs a classical counterinsurgency tactic of converting the EAOs’ political grievances into economic greed. The tactic co-opts the EAOs and their leaders with economic concessions, internally fractures EAOs as their leadership competed for personal power and financial gains, splits EAO alliances, and transforms EAOs to BGFs or PMFs.  The social-economic counterinsurgency strategy further seeks to dry up the water by cutting the EAOs’ sympathy and support from the local population. Consequently, the EAOs become marginalized and starved of popular support.

This socio-economic counterinsurgency strategy of “co-opt and cut” is a component of the Burma Government’s overall counterinsurgency plan. This plan integrates and coordinates political, information/propaganda, military, and socio-economic operations to manage, degrade, and/or eliminate the EAOs, and gain control of their ethnic territories, populations, natural resources, and business opportunities. The socio-economic counterinsurgency strategy seeks to:

  • Dry up/divert the water (popular support base) in which the fish (EAOs) swim, that is, separate the EAOs from their popular support base.
  • Control/interdict trade routes and the financial/economic base of the EAOs including cross-border trade with Thailand and China.
  • Engage in counter-sanctuary through providing economic concessions to Thailand and China to motivate them to deny the EAOs sanctuary or otherwise control any EAOs under their “influence”.
  • Give economic concession to the EAOs to co-opt their leaders, deter them from taxing local populations (thus cutting their links to their popular support base), distract them from demanding political reforms, and convert them to Tatmadaw-controlled BGFs/PMFs which know the local population and territory.
  • Supplement economic concessions with international investment, development, and humanitarian assistance as “fish bait” (greed) to “hook” fish (EAOs).

Proxy Socio-Economic Counterinsurgency

The transition in 2011 to a new hybrid civilian-military government in Burma attracted a number of international investors and government/non-government actors to the country. Many went into the ethnic conflict and ceasefire areas for direct investment, development, humanitarian assistance, state building, and conflict resolution/peacebuilding. The international government/non-government actors include:

  • Foreign governments and their international development agencies (IDAs)
  • United Nations (UN) agencies
  • Multilateral organizations (e.g., international financial institutions - IFIs)
  • International nongovernment organizations (INGOs)
  • Consultancy organizations

Later with the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) in 2015 by eight EAOs, accession of the Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party to government offices in 2016, and removal of most sanctions, the door opened for more international investors and government/nongovernment actors. The Burma Government has been able to garner legitimacy and access to additional resources from them. International investment, development, and humanitarian assistance complement the domestic economic concessions employed in their socio-economic counterinsurgency operations against the EAOs.

In its text, the NCA directly speaks to development projects and international assistance in the conflict-affected ethnic areas. Moreover, the bilateral ceasefire agreements with EAOs have frequently referred to investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services initiatives.

Furthermore, the Burma Government often prioritizes certain conflict-affected ethnic areas for new investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services initiatives as part of their socio-economic counterinsurgency efforts to weaken the EAOs and their relationships with their popular support base. It promotes international engagement at strategic locations where they wish to extend influence and discourages such engagement at other locations.  Thus, international investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services initiatives may be manipulated and channeled for security purposes by the Burma Government to pacify contested ethnic areas and strengthen their own relationships with the ethnic populations which support the EAOs.

Some international investors and government/nongovernment actors are being “weaponized” and used, implicitly or explicitly, by the Burma Government and Tatmadaw as their proxies for social-economic counterinsurgency against the EAOs. They do not understand the conflict dynamics and power/influence relationships of the situation on the ground in the ethnic areas.  The Burma Government and Tatmadaw take advantage of this “ignorance” or “do not care” attitude to employ them in their proxy social-economic counterinsurgency strategy to cut the socio-economic ties between the EAOs and their popular support base.

The ethnic areas have the most lucrative remaining natural resources - gems, precious and other metals, timber, oil, gas, and hydropower - and key trade routes. These are all sources of enormous profits for international and Bamar investors. The Bamars have already exploited their own natural resources and look to do the same in the ethnic conflict areas. Also, they desire to otherwise colonize these areas similar to the Han’s colonization of the ethnic areas with China.

The Burma Government has often used investment, development, and social services initiatives - new health clinics, schools, roads, bridges, electricity and telecommunications infrastructures, pipelines, plantations, dams, and mines - to expand its authority and undermine the EAOs, particularly during ceasefire periods. Now, they have international investors and government/non-government actors to fund/build roads, bridges, and communications systems in the ethnic conflict areas which extend the administrative and territorial reach of the Burma Government. The enhanced roads and bridges allow penetration by Tatmadaw vehicles and heavy armaments into the ethnic conflict areas which were previously inaccessible to them.

There is also a proliferation of humanitarian programs into the ethnic conflict areas, especially in regard to health, education, and poverty reduction, by international government/non-government actors. These programs facilitate the further extension of Burma Government’s administrative and territorial control in the ethnic conflict areas, through these international proxies, to undermine the socio-economic relationship of the EAOs with their popular support base.

Humanitarian actors must adhere to the Naypyitaw Accord which obligates them to align their programs with Burma Government policies. However, most do not obtain memorandums of understanding from the EAOs which may control the areas of operations of these actors. This undermines the EAOs’ authority over their territory and population. Other humanitarian actors implement their programs without regard to local ethnic community-based organizations/civil society organizations (CBOs/CSOs). These CBOs/CSOs have local roots in the community and are equipped to provide any necessary humanitarian assistance directly to their own people with any necessary technical advice and financial support from these humanitarian actors.

The ethnic conflict areas are targeted by the Burma Government for state building to extend their administrative and territorial reach without the necessity of any power/resource sharing arrangements with the ethnic people. Some international government/non-government actors have been eager to assist the Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government to become more efficient and effective in entering, controlling, and exploiting the ethnic conflict areas. They have also agreed to the Burma Government’s Naypyitaw Accord, especially in regard to state and nation building

Some initiatives, in the ethnic conflict areas, are directed toward the peace process and conflict resolution through peacebuilding by enhancing economic growth and improved living standards in the ethnic areas. But these initiatives fail to address the underlying conflict issues. They are often used to strengthen the Burma Government’s capacity to establish their authority over ethnic populations through again furthering their administrative and territorial reach.

Conflict advisors from international government/non-government actors, think tanks, institutes, and foundations advise the Burma Government and EAOs about ceasefires and political dialogue. Some conflict advisors provide financial and material incentives to the EAOs to encourage them to participate in ceasefire and peace dialogues with the Burma Government.  Certain EAO leaders feel that certain international government/non-government actors are bias in favor of the Burma Government and have been encouraging the EAOs to sign the NCA.


The ethnic people of Burma have been striving for self-autonomy, ethnic equality, and peace for seventy years. They desire sustainable peace through equitable power/resource sharing and security sector reform before any international investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services.  These are aspects of peacebuilding which should occur after, not before, peacemaking and peacekeeping. Peacebuilding is used by the Burma Government to avoid political reform.

The ethnic people have suffered enough from the Burma Government and Tatmadaw since independence. They do not need to be also deceived or exploited by some international investors and government/non-government actors which say “we have come to help you”, but really serve as the willing or unknowing proxy socio-economic counterinsurgency agents of the Burma Government and Tatmadaw. Investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services programs as well as domestic economic concessions have provided some strategic counterinsurgency advantages to the Burma Government, but they have not managed to end the seven decades old ethnic conflicts.

For their survival, the EAOs must ensure the viability of their socio-economic base. If they choose to utilize international investment, development, and humanitarian assistance in this respect, they cannot allow it to be manipulated by the Burma Government or their international socio-economic counterinsurgency proxies to drive a wedge between the EAOs and their popular support base, fracture the EAO or its alliances, and contribute to corruption.  Investment, development, and humanitarian assistance should be channeled through, and attributed to, the EAOs.

Moreover, international investment, development, and humanitarian assistance should be implemented through local ethnic CBOs or CSOs in a fully transparent and responsible manner. There must be adherence to the humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality, i.e., not strengthen the Burma Government in the ethnic conflict areas at the expense of peace negotiations, and impartiality, i.e., not provide assistance to only the EAO signers of the NCA or Burma Government-registered CBOs/CSOs. Furthermore, international investment, development, and humanitarian assistance must not influence the political views of the EAOs’ popular support base, or force the EAOs or their popular support bases to make decisions or agreements which compromise their long-held social, economic, and political interests.

The EAOs, through their civil, political, and military structures, will resist any investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services initiatives that diminish their authority over territory and populations, undermine their aims of achieving self-autonomy and ethnic equality for their people, adversely affect local people’s livelihoods, damage their security and economic interests, or facture their organizational and EAO alliance strength and popular support. The EAOs will fight any efforts by the Burma Government and their international socio-economic counterinsurgency proxies to dry up the water until there is sustainable peace and the realization of the ethnic people’s social, economic, and political aspirations.

The EAOs’ first priority is an equitable peace agreement, followed by security sector reform, a new constitution, and elections. Once this peacemaking and peacekeeping is accomplished, then it can be supported through peacebuilding with investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services to provide overall stability and peace.  No level of peacebuilding - investment, development, humanitarian assistance, and social services - can produce stability without a satisfactory political settlement and security sector reform.

About the Author(s)

Moe Gyo is a civil-military consultant working on the Thai-Burma border with various ethnic organizations from Burma.