The tactic targets civilians in bid to stifle support for resistance fighters, but appears to be backfiring.
Protesters in Sagaing region hold a demonstration against the coup. Many say the military's brutal tactics have only stiffened their resolve [Facebook via AFP]
On May 24 in Myanmar’s Kachin State, 13-year-old Awng Di walked over to his aunt’s house about noontime to feed her chickens. Thirty minutes later, heavy artillery crashed through the chicken coop; Awng Di died before reaching the nearby clinic.
“Our family has never been involved in politics … We’re just trying to survive,” Awng Di’s mother told Al Jazeera. “Now, I want to curse [the military soldiers] every time I see them.”
Momauk township, where Awng Di was from, has been the site of clashes between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, and the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of an ethnic armed organisation, since April. The uptick in violence in Momauk and other parts of Kachin State has displaced more than 11,000 people, according to UN estimates.
The clashes in Momauk mark a broader escalation in fighting across the country since the February 1 military coup, as decades-long conflicts between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar’s border areas resume or accelerate, and civilian defence forces emerge in townships that had not previously seen fighting.
In response to the increase in armed resistance, the Tatmadaw has launched indiscriminate air and ground strikes on civilian areas, displacing 230,000 people since the coup. Security forces have also looted and burned homes, blocked aid access and the transport of relief items, restricted water supplies, cut telecommunications networks, shelled places of refuge, and killed and arrested volunteers seeking to deliver humanitarian assistance.
According to Naw Htoo Htoo, programme director of the Karen Human Rights Group, the Tatmadaw’s patterns of violence since the coup mark the continuation of a strategy known as four cuts, which the military began using against Karen people in the 1960s and has since deployed against civilian populations in other ethnic minority areas.
“[The Tatmadaw] doesn’t use the words ‘four cuts’ any more, but the strategy is definitely the same as the four cuts that they used on ethnic people for over 70 years,” said Naw Htoo Htoo.
Through means including restricting access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits, the strategy seeks to starve the support base of armed resistance and turn civilians against resistance groups.
In addition to Karen State, the armed forces have also used the strategy in areas including Kachin and Rakhine states, most notoriously in northern Rakhine State in 2017 when its ‘clearance operations’ sent hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
According to Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher focused on security and conflict in Myanmar, the four cuts strategy “treats civilians not just as ‘collateral damage’ but as a central resource in the battlefield.
“They are targeted directly with extreme violence and see their livelihoods intentionally destroyed so that armed groups cannot find sanctuary and civilian support,” he told Al Jazeera.
Since the coup, the Tatmadaw appears to have expanded its use of four cuts across the country, including in areas predominantly populated by the ethnic Bamar majority. In late March, after security forces looted homes in central Magway Region’s Gangaw township, locals began fighting back with hunting rifles. The Tatmadaw responded with heavy explosives and machine guns that killed four people and left more than 10,000 fleeing to the forest, according to local media group Myanmar Now.
Magway Region’s Pauk township also saw indiscriminate violence on the night of June 15, when more than 200 houses in Kinma village burned to the ground, killing an elderly couple trapped inside their home. Two Kinma residents who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said they did not know about any clashes leading up to the fire, but according to Myanmar Now, the incident occurred days after skirmishes between local resistance fighters and plainclothes police and soldiers.
One of the villagers told Al Jazeera that he saw at least nine people in plainclothes enter the village at about 11pm on June 15, setting homes on fire and shooting at the village’s cattle, pigs and buffaloes.
The Tatmadaw has blamed the incident on 40 “terrorists” and said that media who accused it of torching the village were trying to discredit it.
The military spokesperson did not answer repeated calls from Al Jazeera seeking comment on the incidents of violence or the use of the “four cuts” strategy.
Now, the residents of Kinma are scattered in nearby villages or staying in makeshift shelters in the jungle, where they are running low on food and supplies, according to Than Tun Aung, the pseudonym for one of the two villagers from Kinma interviewed by Al Jazeera. “Collecting aid is challenging because there might be police or soldiers along the way,” he said. “We are always alert and ready to run.”