Historicizing Counter-Insurgency

TW: Descriptions of violence and death

There are many connections that can be drawn between how the military are attempting to repress the Civil Disobendience Movement in Myanmar and how the British colonial regime sought to suppress anti-colonial movements. A quick comparison with British counter-insurgency strategies during the Hsaya San rebellion reveals these connections, particularly with regards to the formal legal mechanisms used by the state. But the comparison also reveals the indiscriminate brutality of the Tatmadaw, particularly through their excessive use of terror.

The Hsaya San rebellion, which errupted in December 1930 and spread across the length and breadth of colony until it was crushed by 1932, was the largest uprising against British rule in South Asia since the 1857 Revolt. It took a massive deployment of troops, the arrest of over 9,000 rebels, and the deaths of at least 3,000 more, for the state to overcome the resistance. Rather than as a unified movement led by one charismatic individual called Hsaya San – a nationalist organiser and healer – it is better understood as a disparate set of localised revolts by peasant-cultivators hardest hit by the crash in rice prices and the extractive demands of the state. It was a violent insurrection and the surviving legal evidence from the time, questionable though much of it may be, suggests a common desire to overthrow British rule. It was also marked by communal violence, particularly against Indians. It bears little resemblance to today’s Civil Disobedience Movement with its ethos of inclusivity and self-defence.

Nevertheless, the counter-insurgency strategies the British used forshadowed those deployed by the Tatmadaw today. Suspected rebels were seized en masse, often after they had survived highly unequaly encounters with the Indian Army. Laws were hastily passed to allow new special courts to be set up to expediate the trials of these captured rebels. More widely, collective punishments were meted out to villages believed to be habouring or supporting rebels, using existing provisions within the law – including powers to forcibly relocate people. We can see resonances between these strategies and those of the Tatmadaw: mass arrests and the use of special courts; the targetting of particular localities for indiscriminate collective punishment; and the use of evictions to intimidate rebels.

Beyond these repressive but legally sanctioned measures, both the British colonial regime and the Tatmadaw used terror in an attempt to instill fear in their opponents. During the Hsaya San rebellion this included decaptitation. I was recently consulting a collection of photographs held by the University of Cambridge’s Centre of South Asian Studies, only to find a series of sickening images of the severed heads of rebels. I had already been aware of the state’s use of decapitation as a strategy from a massacre near the Wetto in the district of Prome, where over one-hundred rebels were killed and had their heads cut off – ostensibily for the purpose of identification but, as more candid correspondence shows, for the ‘moral effect’ of discouraging revolt. Over a dozen of these disembodied heads were displayed at the local police headquarters, leading to photographs appearing in the Burmese-language nationalist press and to questions in parliament. These photos in Cambridge suggest that this might have been a more widespread practice. There are many analogues for this brutality in the Tatmadaw’s repertoire of violence: the indiscriminate snipper headshots at peaceful demonstrations; the torture of detainees; and the mutilation of the corpses of activists who had been captured and killed.

Maung Aung Din, of Okshitkon, states:- I am the nephew of the Okshitkon headman. I went with him to Wetto to see if Maung Hmwe's body was amongst the dead. About 25 went from different villages. I searched with U Po Maung and we counted 48, but there were vary many more whom we could not count because it is thick jungle and the stench from the dead bodies was very bad. From what I saw with my own eyes there must have been more than 100 dead altogether. We found a body in póngyi's robes but could not tell whether it was Maung Hmwe because it had no head and it had greatly swollen. All the bodies which I saw except one were headless. I thought that the Government forces had cut off the heads.
Extract from National Archives of India, Home Political Files, 1931, NA F-177 31: ‘Exposure at Prome of the Heads of 16 Rebels in an Engagement With the Govt Forces’.

The differences between these two events, separated by 90 years, are obvious and many – but the salient difference is that in 1930-2 the colonial state was confronting a violent insurrection and in 2021 the military regime was initially confronting strikes and peaceful protests. While the British did use authoritarian stategies to counter anti-colonial nationalist politics that took more peaceful forms, such as strikes, it reserved terror for violent resistance. This is not to suggest that it was in any way benevolent. But, I would argue, the colonial state’s deployment of repressive violence in Myanmar was tempered by its neglectful attitude towards the populace, except for when they posed material challenges to itself and its interests. The Tatmadaw’s response to peaceful protests, by contrast, reveals its myopically jealous desire to wield power untrammelled by any meaningful dissent or criticism, a desire animated by an excessively paranoaic defence of its avaricious greed.

**Military Coup**

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