Colonel Mathieu in the Borderlands of Myanmar

Francesco Buscemi explores dynamics between the government and state-repelling populations in Myanmar.

The first days of 2018 in Myanmar were characterized by repeated clashes between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) and Myanmar’s Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). In Shan State, the Tatmadaw battled with the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) in the areas of Loilen, Mong Ping and Kyethi Townships. In the south-east of the country, the Border Guard Forces (BGF) launched attacks against the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA-5/Klo Htoo Baw Karen Organization) in Mae Tha Waw area, Hlaingbwe Township.[1]

At the same time, the Tatmadaw obstructed national-level political dialogues and public consultations held by the RCSS/SSA-S, the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). As a consequence, the leaders of the eight EAOs signatories of the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) decided that the third session of the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference (UPC), scheduled for the end of January, should be held only after the dialogues and consultations mandated under the terms of the NCA have taken place.[2]

Amidst heightened tensions, these events and the third session of the now-delayed UPC offer an opportunity for reflecting upon the strained relations between the Tatmadaw, the government and ethnic organizations in Myanmar. One underlying trait of the relationship between these entities is the unfolding of mutually constitutive state-building processes of various natures, in which the State retains a privileged position vis à vis its opponents.

Within this landscape, one can observe the persistence of a panoply of practices and narratives through which the government and the Tatmadaw have shaped insurgencies into organizations of different nature and form, often to the detriment of bottom-up spontaneous pushes for autonomy. On the other side, state-resistant groups often undertake trajectories similar to that of governments, drawing around themselves the trappings of state builders. Ironically, they move somehow closer to what they sought to distance themselves from. Similarly to other techniques of social identity formation, the organization of insurgency structures “offers a powerful way of creating a place for new elites and an institutional grid for social mobilization.”[3] The state, directly or indirectly, often plays a role in the formation and institutionalization of insurgencies.

This dynamic is prominently on display in Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers, considered by many to be one of the greatest political films ever and appreciated by a very wide spectrum of audiences, from revolutionaries such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to war-planners at the Pentagon. The film offers a vivid representation of themes of power dynamics (in and beyond colonial systems), rebellion, and the various incarnations of violence and its functions.

Through the folds of these more general themes, the movie provides useful lenses of analysis to approach a peculiar nuance of the relationship between rulers and the so-called “ungoverned” (or – what seems a more appropriate term – “differently organized”) spaces and social formations. It helps reveal, in J.C. Scott’s terms, the mutually constitutive aspect of the relations between state and “non-state.” Beneath the kaleidoscopic variety of terms adopted to describe what rests outside state boundaries, from barbarians to ethnic groups, minorities, hillbillies, radicals or radicalized individuals, immigrants or terrorists, rebels or non-state armed actors: “There is no evolutionary sequence; tribes are not prior to states. Tribes are, rather, a social formation defined by its relation to the state.”[4] The next section looks closely at a scene from the film that has implications for our understanding of conflict in contemporary Myanmar.


“So we now average 4.2 attacks a day. We must distinguish between attacks on individuals and bombings. As usual the problem involves: first, the adversary, and second, the means to destroy him. There are 400.000 Arabs in Algiers. Are they all our enemies? We know they’re not. But a small minority holds sway by means of terror and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it. It’s a dangerous enemy that works in the open and underground, using tried-and-true revolutionary methods as well as original tactics. It’s a faceless enemy, unrecognizable, blending in with hundreds of others. It is everywhere. In cafés, in the alleys of the Casbah, or in the very streets of the European quarter (…). We have to start from scratch (…). To know them is to eliminate them. Consequently, the purely military aspect of the problem is secondary. More important is the policing aspect (…). We must investigate to reconstruct the pyramid (…). The base of our job is the intelligence. The method: interrogation.”[5]

On January the 10th 1957, Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Mathieu, a fictional character constructed out of several French counterinsurgency officers, paraded through the streets of Algiers’ European neighbourhood leading the troops of the 10th Airborne Division of the French Army. His deployment in what is today’s Algerian capital was part of several far-reaching orders issued by the Colonial Inspector General, aimed at maintaining law and order and enforcing the protection of persons and private property. Spearheaded by the insurgency activity of the Front de Liberation National (FLN), a popular rebellion had been targeting the colonial administration since the final months of 1956. As a lifelong military officer, deployed in Italy, Normandy, Madagascar, Indochina, Algeria and former member of an anti-Nazi resistance movement, Col. Mathieu was fully conscious of the fundamental importance of (re)constructing the profile of the enemy in order to achieve the task that had been assigned to him by Paris: the defeat of the Algerian insurgency.

This scene from The Battle of Algiers portrays the organization and implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy adopted by the French Lieutenant Colonel. Mathieu’s plan consists of identifying the FLN amongst what he sees as a tumultuous multitude – “a faceless enemy, unrecognizable, blending in with hundreds of others” – and reconstructing its structure.

Allegorically, Mathieu literally wears and embodies the reciprocal ambiguity intrinsic in the relationship between the state and rebels. In the scene, he strolls around the room in black sunglasses, wearing his camouflage uniform decorated with military insignia, a garment that simultaneously performs the twofold function of mimicry (camouflage) and institutionalization (uniform). Behind the sunglasses that he moves on and off his face, and underneath that uniform – a tangible but ephemeral sign of state power – lies a one-time insurgent fighter amongst the ranks of the French resistance against Nazism who has now turned into the executive enforcer of ruthless colonial rule. Through what seems a subtle and strident contradiction, Mathieu personifies the protean character of rebellion and the contiguity between power and the rebel.

Less allegorically and more directly, illustrating to his men the strategy to be adopted to crush the insurgency, Mathieu’s words render conspicuous the epistemological and ontological gap which outdistances the sovereign and the social structures of the people willing to step outside its rule. He reveals a deviation that occurs between those social structures and the process through which the former knows them.

In other words, the scene shows how, to control the formations at its margins, the sovereign power (in this case the French colonial administration) needs to construct them through grids of intelligibility that require unity, coherence, hierarchy, stability, organization. In fact, the social formations of resistance and rebellion, armed or not, rarely possess the consistency and substantiality with which they are described, conceived, constructed.[6] The need to bridge that epistemological distance, putting pressure on a liquidity to turn it into graspable solidity, resonates in Mathieu’s brief concluding sentence: “To know them is to eliminate them (…) The base of our job is the intelligence. The method: interrogation.”[7]

Bringing this to the realm of International Relations, a similar principle has been described by Henry Kissinger: “When domestic structures – and the concept of legitimacy on which they are based – differ widely, statesmen can still meet, but their ability to persuade has been reduced for they no longer speak the same language”.[8]

One can observe how fragments of that distance emerge across different fields mirrored in the means devised to cover it. Traditional definitions of non-state armed groups developed in the literature on Peace and Conflict studies, revolving around the legal criteria laid down by Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions[9], are one example of such fragments. In a similar vein, non-state actors engaging in conflict are normally understood through unitary and dyadic frameworks that are incapable of grasping internal articulations and processes of fragmentation within insurgencies. In other words, armed groups are usually drawn similarly to the way in which Mathieu in the movie draws the structure of the FLN on a chalkboard: vertically, hierarchically, unitary and pyramid-shaped.


During the last 70 years in Myanmar, the military governments of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), together with the Tatmadaw, have adopted a range of tactics that practically and physically construct the borderlands of the country, not only their spaces but also the social formations of people living there and the EAOs that (allegedly) represent them in the armed struggle.

The transformation of EAOs into paramilitary entities somehow connected to the Army has represented a major tenet of the Tatmadaw’s counterinsurgency strategy since the 1960s.[10] This modus operandi has assumed different incarnations, from Ne Win’s program aimed at molding Shan State armed actors into state-backed KaKweYe (KKY) paramilitary units, to the prominent role of people’s militias in the Maoist-inspired concept of people’s war widely embraced by the Tatmadaw, or the more recent 2009 Border Guard Forces (BGF) reintegration program. For instance, the 23 BGFs and 15 People’s Militia Forces (PMFs) that emerged in 2009 and 2010 from former ceasefire EAOs, factions of EAOs or other militias, today form an effective branch of the Tatmadaw that controls them directly or through patronage relations with prominent local figures. Over the years, with these strategies, the military and successive governments have managed to organize spaces and people outside their direct control. In turn, rural areas, particularly in the north and east of the country, are characterized by a complex and discontinuous political and security landscape presenting multiple centers of power.[11]

The tactics adopted have been particularly varied. The co-optation of local business or political figures together with the creation of patronage networks, the constitution of paramilitary groups out of disbanded EAOs units or the concession of construction contracts for infrastructures to local, national or regional actors represent some examples. Another such means is the allocation of large portions of land that allows the military and the government to pose as security providers, extract resources of different kind from the areas surrounding allocated lands, establish partnerships with the new owner(s) and intervene in the social configuration of the territory through relocations and administrative settlements.[12] The so-called “4-cuts” strategy, featured prominently in counter-insurgency manuals of the Tatmadaw, is equally illustrative in this sense. The strategy consists of cutting off intelligence, food, funds and popular support for insurgents in order to destroy them or force them into co-optation processes. Overall, the strategy’s rationale resides in the disconnection of communities from insurgent armed groups and vice versa, in order to shape armed actors as completely separate entities from the underlying population. The tenacious refusal of EAOs to disarm after having signed a ceasefire with the government might be taken as an indication of the reluctance to undertake the very last step in that direction and the willingness of some to continue moving along a centrifugal trajectory from the central government.

Quite tellingly, the Security Sector Reform (SSR) and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) processes represent integral components of the peace process codified in the NCA and can be considered as essential elements from the Tatmadaw perspective. In the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement the two are defined with one single term, “security re-integration”. The synthesis of SSR and DDR into this formula has engendered ambiguities in the peace process: depending on interpretation, such an equation might entail the dismantling of EAOs and their incorporation into the current security apparatus without any concrete reassurance concerning the modification of the latter into a more federal security system or any actual reform in that direction prior to the disarmament of EAOs. Not surprisingly, these issues generate frictions between ethnic organizations, the government and Tatmadaw, as illustrated by a recent declaration issued by Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) regarding the necessity to postpone the planned Panglong UPC due exactly to this controversial matter. Divergences on SSR and DDR shed a light on the mutually constitutive processes of state building as they lie at the core of structural and organizational interests on both sides and bring to the fore fundamental questions such as the monopoly over the use of force.

Through these techniques, the central government structures its borderlands, squeezing out the fluidity of those rejecting the state by molding their organizations. As the language used in relation to SSR and DDR suggests, the forms assumed by this process have by no means been limited to practices such as constitution of paramilitary groups or patronage networks. Narratives and discourses have also been crucial.

To extend the analysis, one might look at a recent event that, although marginal, allows us to creatively trace the proposed conception of the relations between the state and ethnic organizations, and the role of narratives, in the context of the Rohingya question.
In his recent apostolic journey to Myanmar at the end of November 2017, Pope Francis’ avoidance of naming the Rohingya sparked attention and debate, particularly amongst the international community that had recently awakened to the Rohingya struggle due to the Tatmadaw’s latest wave of repression that burst out in August last year. Besides the indignation aroused, the absence of the name ‘Rohingya’ in the Pope’s speech could be understood as a fragment of the relationship between sovereign powers and “ungoverned” or “state-repelling”[13] people depicted in Colonel Mathieu’s speech in The Battle of Algiers. When observed through the prism of the overall landscape, the term Rohingya was conspicuous by its absence in the words of the Pope, in as much as that absence fed back into the Myanmar central government, rather than non-state formations. The state gained authority and (indirect) legitimacy, while state-repelling people remained neglected, relegated behind the categories of armed groups, terrorists, refugees or immigrants. The salience of that absence resides in the overall process of mutual constitution between the Myanmar government and Myanmar’s “state-repelling” groups, a process that has been constantly ongoing since before the birth of the Union of Burma in 1948.

To conclude by paraphrasing Scott, Myanmar probably hosts one of the last areas on earth with a large concentration of state-repelling people. Nevertheless, with the gradual occupation, co-optation and articulation of physical and social spaces and structures by central authorities, the only environment that seems left for state-repelling people is that of illegality, often once again defined by and in mutual relation with the state.

Francesco Buscemi is a PhD candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the Pisa-based Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies.

[1] See respectively Burma News International, RCSS, Tatmadaw clashed four times in early January, 15 January 2018,; and Burma News International, KNLA denies involvement in Mae Tha Waw clashes, 10 January 2018, See also Burma News International, Ten Members of KKO surrender to BGF, 16 January 2018,
[2] Burma News International, 21st Century Panglong Conference to be held only after holding public consultations – PPST, 16 January 2018,
[3] Scott, J.C. (2009), The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale: Yale University Press, p. 320
[4] Scott, J.C. (2009), p. 208.
[5] Pontecorvo, G., (1966), The Battle of Algiers, Italy, 121 min., min. 55:38,
[6] Scott, J.C. (2009), p.38
[7] Ibid Pontecorvo, G. (1966).
[8] Kissinger, Henry A. (1969), American Foreign Policy: Three Essays, New York: W.W. Norton, in: Guzzini, S. (2000), A Reconstruction of Constructivism in International Relations, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 6, Issue no. 2, pp. 147-182, p. 153.
[9] The Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions establishes the threshold according to which armed groups are considered subjects of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Groups have to be organized and under responsible command; they have to be able to exercise control over territory so as to be able to carry out sustained and concerted military actions; and, groups have to be able to implement Additional Protocol II.
[10] Jolliffe, K. and Bainbridge, J. (2017), Security integration in Myanmar. Past experiences and future visions, Saferworld.
[11] Jolliffe, K. and Bainbridge, J. (2017), p. 4.
[12] Woods, K. (2016), Ceasefire Capitalism: Military-private Partnerships, Resource Concessions and Military State Building in the Burma-China Borderlands, in Sadan, M. ed., War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire, 1994–2011, NIAS Studies in Asian Topics.
[13] The term is taken from Scott, J.C (2009).