Myanmar Military’s Notorious Foot Soldiers
By David Scott Mathieson 25 March 2021
Pressure on the Myanmar military’s State Administration Council (SAC) just incrementally tightened in recent days with the United States designating two commanders and two military units under Executive Order 14014, a further step in US government targeting of the Tatmadaw (military) following the February 1 coup.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken named on March 22 Bureau of Special Operations head Lieutenant General Aung Soe and national police chief Than Hlaing and Light Infantry Divisions (LID) 33 and 77 for penalizing the exercise of freedom of expression or assembly.
LID 33 and LID 77 were listed for firing live rounds at protesters and for being “part of the Burmese security forces’ planned, systemic strategies to ramp up the use of lethal force. These designations show that this violence will not go unanswered.” In mid-March, Amnesty International reported that troops from LID 33 and LID 77 were involved in shootings in Mandalay, and soldiers from LIB 101 shot at protesters in Monywa.
This follows from similar sanctions on units involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017. LID 33 and LID 99 were rightly sanctioned by the United States under the Global Magnitsky Act in August 2018 over their role in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, but they were not the only troops involved in the campaign.
Who are these LIDs and how do they operate? LIDs were formed in the 1960s to perform as shock troops to pacify insurgent-controlled areas, such as the Pegu Yoma. The first was LID 77 in 1966 based in Pegu/Bago, LID 88 the following year in Magwe and then LID 99 based in Meiktila, Mandalay Region. They are often used in large, well-planned offensives against fixed positions, and to clear the area of insurgents and their civilian support base: the pya ley pya or “four cuts” counter-insurgency approach.
The four cuts and the divisions specifically raised to pursue them are similar to the French approach called quadrillage employed to brutal effect in Algeria. It is essentially deploying troops on a grid-like pattern throughout a populated area and then slowly eliminating armed insurgents, often by punishing civilians. It is not dissimilar to the US approach in Vietnam, although large-scale airpower and artillery were used, often indiscriminately, to devastating effect on the civilian population. By the 1980s and definitely during the 1990s as patterns of conflict transformed from large-scale offensives against insurgent areas, many of whom had agreed to ceasefires with the military regime, to low-intensity pacification, the general behavior of troops resembled a four cuts strategy even without any specific large-scale objective in mind: objectifying and terrorizing the civilian population was the only purpose.
Gradually more LIDs were formed in the 1970s and 1980s and stationed at key towns with LID 22 in Hpa-an, LID 99 in Meiktila and LID 33 in Sagaing. But since the Tatmadaw expanded to 10 LIDs over the last few decades, the idea that LIDs are an “elite formation” is misleading. Within a division, there might be units that are deployed for specialist operations whilst others continue with garrison duties in specific places. Certain battalions may well be the shock troops but not the entire division. For example, the US 82nd Airborne Division can be deployed rapidly around the world as a division but that capacity, even domestically, is beyond the Tatmadaw.
For example, when LID 99 was deployed in Rakhine State, I encountered a unit from the division manning checkpoints on the road to Hpakant in Kachin State. They had an “enlist in the Tatmadaw” billboard prominently displayed. In 2019, Amnesty International documented routine abuses perpetrated by 99 LID in northern Shan State. The June 2016 killing of seven unarmed men in Mong Yaw in northern Shan State was perpetrated by soldiers of Light Infantry Battalion 362 of LID 33.
Elements of division-sized LIDs are seconded to the Military Operations Command (MOCs), usually in battalion strength which could be between 150 soldiers or the maximum of 600 which frontline units rarely reach. MOCs oversee routine operations in specific areas within a regional military command, of which there are 14. Yangon Command’s troops are clearly identifiable by their insignia and have also been photographed with sniper rifles. LID 22 had a notorious reputation in the 1990s attacking Karen National Union-controlled areas on the Thai border. LID 88 operated in Kachin State in late 2012 and 2013 when widespread reports of crimes against humanity and war crimes were documented.
Many of the LIDs instill a sadistic esprit de corps and brag about their abusive excesses. When they rotate through different parts of Myanmar they often intimidate civilians with tales of their cruelty elsewhere. It is a fallacy to claim LIDs only perform frontline operations when often static garrison troops can be just as abusive. It should not be any sinister code involved with 33 or 77, when 88 and 99 are just as bad, 44 is also implicated in abuses and LID 66 troops have also been spotted. It should be a matter of grave concern when any regular armed force trained and deployed for counter-insurgency warfare or conventional defense duties is deployed on city streets.
LIDS have been deployed to crush urban dissent before, most notably in 1988 and 2007. During the September 2007 crackdown on peaceful protests in Yangon, elements of the 11, 66 and 77 LIDs were deployed, according to Human Rights Watch.
It is important to note which units are involved in conflict and crushing dissent to establish complicity in abuse and important in establishing command responsibility and individual wrong-doing. It is more important though to maintain that the Tatmadaw is itself a terribly abusive institution, from its ongoing abuses against civilians in Karen and Shan states, a host of units perpetrate abuse. Human rights reports from eastern Shan State over the last 20 years frequently mention Infantry Battalion 65 as abusive and corrupt.
Many urban civilians have little idea about the Tatmadaw and which units are notorious because they rarely encounter troops. Civilians in conflict areas have well-founded fears of new troops arriving. But the idea that LID troops are an axiomatic indicator of an impending crackdown is not that straightforward: their appearance should be a cause for concern but so should any regular army deployment.
In the late 1990s, in Nyaunglebin District of northern Karen State, the Tatmadaw’s Sah Thon Lon (Guerilla Retaliation Unit) allegedly assassinated 50-100 civilians suspected of supporting the Karen National Liberation Army, according to the Karen Human Rights Group. Myanmar has not fostered a culture of “death squads” per se but a broader pattern of Tatmadaw troops being abusive almost everywhere they go. The entire organization acts as a death squad.
Identifying LID 77 is important, but it is not exactly the same as specifically abusive militias such as Arkan’s Tigers during the Bosnian war or the US-backed Atlacatal Battalion in El Salvador responsible for the December 1981 massacre at El Mozote where over 1,000 civilians were murdered. The Pyithu Sit and Border Guard Forces allied to the Tatmadaw are without doubt abusive and corrupt but their behavior is often eclipsed by the brutality of the regular army.
As important as identifying and sanctioning abusive units is, it is crucially important to remember that the entire Tatmadaw is abusive, aggressive, entitled, predatory and violently unreformed. Looking at troops and police beating injured protesters, vandalizing shops and motorbikes and looting apartments is like seeing uniformed locusts preying on a vulnerable population. That is precisely how many people in long-standing ethnic conflict areas experienced them for decades, often in obscurity and under dismissive denials from the international community. There is extensive documentation to prove that their patterns of behavior were replicated wherever they operated and not as some anomaly or aberration. This was a key finding of the UN fact-finding mission in 2018.
By 2013, examples of security forces connivance in abuse in Rakhine State during 2012 and police impotency in Meiktila months later, the West’s fledging flirtation with the Tatmadaw to build confidence in former president U Thein Sein’s “transition to democracy” and the nascent “peace process” resulted in the horrific battlefield record of the LIDs and other infantry being viewed as an inconvenience. In dealing with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw, especially for craven investors such as Norway who wanted to leverage peace support for corporate contracts, military abuses were given short shrift.
For most of the past 10 years, people in Myanmar have had to withstand hordes of foreigners screeching self-serving gibberish about a military that could be trusted, seeking proficiency in new equipment supplied by Russia, Ukraine and China, and a grudging partner in a hybrid form of quasi-civilian rule. Min Aung Hlaing was widely perceived as the main driver of this modernization. The Tatmadaw’s performance in conflict areas against the Arakan Army and multiple insurgencies in Shan State exhibited more use of air support and artillery, use of transport helicopters and other support equipment, but its bestial behavior on the ground was unreconstructed: against the Rohingya, Rakhine, Ta’ang, Shan, Kachin and Bamar for those who bothered to take notice.
But there were many foreigners who exhibited far more exuberant optimism in the Tatmadaw’s sincerity. Workshops were offered on “human security and counter-terrorism”, peacekeeping, study tours thrown at senior officers to travel the world and witness the benefits of reform. Many foreign interlocutors extolled the virtues of elite engagement with the Tatmadaw and trammeled talk of abuses in conflict areas as obscure incidents or small, little wars like gangster rivalry. Tens of millions of dollars of international “peace support” was predicated on the Tatmadaw as a trustworthy partner. Anyone casting an honest eye over the performance of the Joint Monitoring Committee would have concluded a complete lack of sincerity on the Tatmadaw’s part and by funding such a cynical farce donors are complicit in the cover-up of the military’s abusive nature.
The past decade of ingratiation has obscured the true nature of the Tatmadaw, its LIDs, regional command troop support units such as the police and their approach to peace and pacification. What we are witnessing is a quadrillage of Myanmar’s society by a military hell-bent on maintaining power. Calling out the most abusive tips of the spear is crucial, but so too is seeing the entire institution of the military for the invasive species it is.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues on Myanmar. He has been a contributor to The Irrawaddy since 2003.
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