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Relocating Civilians To Fight Insurgency, Does It Even Work?

Egypt is forcing civilians to move to create a buffer zone after terrorists hit again in the Sinai. From Vietnam to Algeria, such tactics have caused as much hardship as they've prevented.

A Palestinian man looks on as an Egyptian military operation takes place in Rafah, Egypt.
A Palestinian man looks on as an Egyptian military operation takes place in Rafah, Egypt.
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — On Oct. 29, the Egyptian army began bulldozing and dynamiting houses along Egypt's border with Gaza to create a buffer zone 14 kilometers long and 500 meters wide. Plans for creating the buffer zone followed an attack on military outposts that left more than 33 security personnel dead, and is part of a larger effort to dismantle militant cells in North Sinai.

Egypt's government and military say they need this buffer zone to fight terrorism in North Sinai by creating a clear border, cutting off tunnels that supply food and arms across the border and denying insurgents shelter among the civilian population.

This population, said to be 1,156 families, are being relocated to nearby areas, at gunpoint when they don't leave voluntarily. In an area where wealth is traditionally invested in real estate, losing homes can be a particularly devastating blow . Families have reportedly been offered a monthly housing stipend of 300 Egyptian pounds ($42) for the next three months. Full compensation, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has suggested, could total $140 million.

Debate about whether this is a good move is common, with the campaign widely backed by a media establishment now moving in lockstep with official policy line . Reports from mainstream media emphasize that the people of North Sinai are willing to face relocation for the good of the country.

But other voices worry about whether people will be appropriately compensated, whether forced relocation amounts to collective punishment, and how this will affect an insurgency that is driven in no small part by decades of civilians being harshly treated in Sinai.

Because the relocation program in Egypt is still in its infancy, it's far too early to measure results. But Egypt is by no means the only government to move civilians en masse in an attempt to crush an insurgency. Even discounting land grabs and ethnic cleansing, modern history reveals repeated uses of relocation as a counterinsurgency tactic, from the reconcentrados in which Spain detained Cuban rebels, to France's regroupment program in Algeria.


Those looking for a successful example of forced relocation as a counterinsurgency tactic usually turn to the British suppression of a 1948 uprising known as the Malayan Emergency . By the middle of the 20th century, Malaya, which produced rubber and tin, was Britain's most profitable colony. But in the aftermath of World War II, the colonial economy was threatened with growing labor unrest, which by June 1948 escalated to the assassination of three European plantation managers by communist rebels.

The Communist Party, which was predominantly drawn from the colony's ethnic Chinese minority, retreated to the countryside and formed the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) to launch a guerrilla campaign. There, they found a base of support and a source of raw recruits among disenfranchised, impoverished ethnic Chinese peasants living at the edge of the jungle.

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Police officers questioning a civilian during the Malayan Emergency —Photo: Bert Hardy

To combat MNLA guerrillas, the Commonwealth Army mounted a massive military campaign, with more than 4,500 airstrikes over five years, as well as police and military operations on the ground. This was combined with a resettlement program that forcibly relocated some 400,000 mostly ethnic Chinese farmers, into fortified "New Villages."

The British touted the settlements as "safe and protected" sites where former squatters would enjoy the benefits of good governance, " progress and modern life." Those who survived the New Villages recall the burning of their homes, followed by moves to poorly developed sites , curfews and limited food rations.

From a military standpoint, this combination of tactics proved successful. Without supplies and recruits, the rebels were unable to withstand the onslaught of the colonial army. By 1960, the "emergency" was over.

But even those who tout the Malayan experience concede that Malaya offered unusually favorable conditions for a conventional army fighting a counterinsurgency. The conflict took place on a peninsula bisected by a mountainous spine, making it easy for colonial troops to push rebels further and further north. Malaya was granted independence in August 1957, undercutting nationalist rationale for the rebellion and limiting support from other ethnic groups . There was also another critical factor: The vast majority of the MNLA and its supporters came from the peninsula's ethnic Chinese minority. The British could thereby win the war by isolating and oppressing a minority group that was physically distinguishable from the Malay majority.

But from a social standpoint, the results of British tactics don't look so successful. The relocations led to civilian deaths, declining food production and a disrupted rural social fabric, with the ensuing injustices feeding further discontent.

The second Malayan emergency began in 1967, and to this day modern Malaysia maintains separate legal codes for citizens of Chinese, Indian and Malay origin. The roots of this legal segregation, which guarantees favorable treatment for Malays, lie deep in the colonial period, but the oppression of Chinese civilians during the conflict has done nothing to cement intra-communal solidarity.


If Malaya's "New Villages" are held up as the gold standard for relocation policies, the United States' "strategic hamlets" in Vietnam serve to illustrate what can go wrong. Inspired by Britain's tactics in Malaya, the United States attempted to cut off support for Viet Cong rebels by relocating some eight million South Vietnamese villagers between 1961 and 1963.

The program is almost universally regarded as a disaster. Unlike Malaya's rebels, the Viet Cong could blend into the local population and melt away across borders or into hills.

A South Vietnamese interpreter questions the wife of a Viet Cong — Photo: KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMA

The hamlets were poorly guarded and easily overrun by guerillas. With people outraged at being torn from their traditional villages, their ancestors' graves and their fields, and facing grim conditions inside the hamlets, Viet Cong recruitment skyrocketed. The program was abandoned after the 1963 coup that deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem.

In both Vietnam and Malaya, the conflict's conventional army belonged to a colonial or foreign power. What happens when, as in Egypt, a government finds itself facing an insurgency drawn from the ranks of its own citizens?


Shan State, in Burma's mountainous northeast, is one such place — although, as in Malaya, the insurgents were (and are) part of a minority group. The Burmese military began forcibly displacing villagers in the late 1970s, but the policy intensified in 1996 with the surrender of a local armed separatist group. Figures within Burma are nearly impossible to corroborate, but rights activists estimate that some 300,000 people were displaced between 1996 and 1998, the majority forced into fortified towns where they were subjected to additional abuses, including forced labor. Areas outside the relocation centers were considered free-fire zones.

Despite political tolerance for virtually unlimited force against civilians, the central government remains unable to completely subdue the small separatist struggles in its border zones. Clashes and internal displacement continue to this day. Despite its brutality, the Burmese military does not have a monopoly on the use of force in its peripheries.

Until very recently, the generals ruling Burma made few pretenses of believing in democracy or respecting human rights, which left them relatively unconstrained in suppressing dissidents.


India, like Egypt, is somewhat more conscious of domestic and international public opinion.

The Indian government has launched major resettlement campaigns in the restive Naga and Mizo hills in Assam State, in an attempt to choke off support for separatist guerillas.

In 1956, members of the Naga tribes announced a breakaway state, and armed Naga Home Guards attacked police posts and other government installations. Along with a military operation, two army divisions and 34 paramilitary brigades, the government ordered villages suspected of supporting the rebels to be burned and their inhabitants moved to army-controlled camps, where they were held until 1959. Studies put the number of relocated people at around 35% of Nagaland state's population.

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A Naga warrior in 1960 — Photo: Archive Fetisova.N.F

The Indian government has also used forced relocations in nearby Mizoram, where some 80% of the population was relocated to "protected and progressive villages" between 1967 and the signing of a peace accord and granting of statehood in 1985-86. The program is credited with some success in quelling violence, but that came at the expense of relocating the overwhelming majority of the civilian population. In central India, both sides of the ongoing conflict between Maoist Naxalite insurgents and state-backed paramilitary groups are accused of forcing civilians out of their home villages.

Egypt's relocation program is, by comparison, quite modest. And because each uprising is unique, comparisons rarely allow accurate predictions. Nonetheless, some general trends emerge.

Relocations can be a successful tactic for isolating insurgents and cutting off supply corridors, but they can also backfire terribly, driving civilians into the arms of the very groups the government hopes to weaken. Such strategies are more likely to succeed if the government is fighting ethnic minorities, is on favorable terrain, or has overwhelming military superiority and the ability to offer relocated civilians an improved standard of living.

Even in cases where relocation contributes to military success, the long-term effects on the cohesiveness of a nation are, at best, mixed.

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