The Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, appears to have returned to its “four cuts” strategy in a bid to stamp out resistance to its rule, after seizing power from the elected government in a coup on February 1.
But what is the “four cuts”?
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Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher focused on security and conflict in Myanmar, says the ‘four cuts’ strategy was first developed in the 1960s when the Tatmadaw was struggling to fight the Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Union, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed group.
At the time, it was particularly used in the Ayeyarwady Delta Region and the Bago Yoma mountain range.
Military historian Maung Aung Myoe has written about the doctrine’s introduction at a Tatmadaw conference, following the recognition that these armed groups’ biggest strength was their strong relations with the local people, which allowed them to operate behind enemy lines, according to Jolliffe, who adds that the strategy was instrumental in clearing the KNU from its more western territories, forcing the group to re-group in southeast Myanmar, where it remains strong today.
According to Naw Htoo Htoo of the Karen Human Rights Group, the Tatmadaw’s use of ‘four cuts’ in areas under KNU control “targeted every person and village which they thought would have ties with the KNU.”
“They fired indiscriminately at Karen villages, destroyed every food and aid item they thought was meant to support the KNU… restricted medical aid in conflict-affected areas, arrested people they suspected of providing aid and food, and arrested their family members…” she said. “They also used widespread sexual violence and forcibly relocated entire communities.”
The Tatmadaw has also used four cuts in Kachin State, where a ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Organization collapsed in 2011 and more than 100,000 people fled their homes amid renewed fighting, as well as in Rakhine State, where fighting between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army displaced 230,000 people between 2018 and 2020.
In August 2017, after a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched coordinated attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine State, the Tatmadaw conducted so-called “clearance operations” on the entire Rohingya population in the state’s northern townships.
Mass arson, rape and killing sent hundreds of thousands fleeing over the border to Bangladesh, and Myanmar is now the subject of genocide charges at the International Court of Justice.
Many ethnic minority people hoped that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which held power from 2016 until the coup, would hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its violence in ethnic minority areas.
But she and her party, the National League for Democracy, instead repeatedly supported Tatmadaw attacks in ethnic areas and blocked international humanitarian access to displaced people; Aung San Suu Kyi also defended Myanmar against genocide charges at The Hague in 2019.
“The National League for Democracy government failed to prevent or denounce [four cuts] although it had the chance,” said Naw Htoo Htoo.