Myanmar’s military intensify operations against another minority

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

With the Rohingya minority by and large fully expunged from Myanmar, an emboldened military is intensified operations against another target minority, the Kachin.

The Kachin are a collection of several tribes located mainly in the Shan state of Northern Myanmar. This majority Christian collective number around one million with hundreds of thousands having fled to neighbouring countries due the long running and bitter civil war between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar military.

Though the situation of the Rohingya and Kachin differ, the UN fact finding mission has indicated that there are “marked similarities” between the two groups. In a statement released this month by Hkun Htoi Layang from the Kachin Relief Fund the group highlights the tactics used by Myanmar military:

“Our people have been subject to numerous violations of international law, including executions, torture, forced displacement, forced labour, rape and other forms of sexual violence, confiscation of property, arbitrary arrest and detention, and denial of humanitarian assistance.”

And the Kachin and Rohingya are not the only groups in the military crosshair. Myanmar has essentially been at war with almost every ethnic group since independence resulting in some of the longest running civil wars in the country.

In nearby northern Shan state, a similar full on insurgency is raging between the Myanmar army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic Ta’ang separatist group and occasional allies of the Kachin Independence Army. And in the north-east of Shan state, the fighting between the army and the Kokang-ethnic Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, has seen tens of thousands of civilian refugees pushed over the border to China since 2009.

This fact is exemplified in how all of these insurgencies are approached by the military. When these conflicts arise, the army is not fighting with just the insurgents. It is waging war on entire ethnic groups. The military tactic of “Four Cuts” which was developed in 1970s to cut off access to food, funds, information and recruitment to ethnic militias but instead now it is used explicitly and systematically to target civilians, and is underpinned by rape, mass killing and burning villages. The renewed shelling in the north in anticipation of the yearly Dry Season offensives is not targeted merely at suspected insurgent positions. Just as often, the targets are civilian areas.

Decades of propaganda

All this has happened against the backdrop of the country transitioning towards democracy since 2008. The hope in the West had been that with the advent of democracy, and with the election of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, to the leadership of the country in late 2015, the past excesses of the army would be reversed. But in fact, the opposite has happened: the trend towards violence has accelerated since 2016. This has been most obvious in the escalation of the Rohingya crisis, but the same increase in violence has been observed by all the other targeted groups. Some attribute this to an emboldened military which believes it has by and large managed to get away with ridding their country of the Rohingya so can now turn their attention to other ethnic groups.

After so many decades of civil war against ‘enemies within’, persecution and ethnic violence against marginal groups are an essential part of Myanmar’s national identity.

Azeem Ibrahim

After decades of propaganda by the succession of military juntas, Myanmar’s fresh democratic electorate are steeped in prejudice against all non-Buddhists, and to a large extent, also non-Bamar people. Conflicts which the military considers vital are going to continue in the country, and the people will largely be supportive of violence against minorities.

It is important to remember that the persecution of the Rohingya has not happened exclusively at the hands of the military. Their ethically Rakhine Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine state have been at least as violent, and in the 2012-2016 period largely drove the attacks against the Rohingya.

And if Ms Suu Kyi’s efforts to ‘whitewash’ the Rohingya genocide on behalf of the military are anything to go by, or indeed if we listen to her broader rhetoric regarding the army, her civilian government will also back the army against all these other minorities.

After so many decades of civil war against ‘enemies within’, persecution and ethnic violence against marginal groups are an essential part of Myanmar’s national identity. Once the Rohingya are completely removed, the internal political structure and culture of the country will demand a new favoured enemy. And in its many conflicts, Myanmar has plenty options to choose from. The Rohingya will not be the last humanitarian catastrophe we will hear about in South-East Asia. This is merely the beginning.


Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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