Karen rebels go on offensive in Myanmar
By Brian McCartan
While Myanmar's generals held their stage-managed elections, an ethnic rebel
group forcibly seized control of two border towns and highlighted immediately
the polls' ineffectiveness at achieving national reconciliation.
Government forces on Tuesday forced the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
out of Myawaddy and Pyathounzu towns, but the attacks already had significant
repercussions for the transition from military to civilian rule.
DKBA troops of the 902nd Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Thet entered
Myawaddy on Sunday afternoon, the day of the elections, and took over
government offices, including a police station and the local headquarters of
Military Affairs Security
(MAS), Myanmar's military intelligence agency. Colonel Lah Pweh, the leader of
the DKBA's 5th Brigade, claimed it was necessary to intervene to protect people
from being forced to vote by the military.
Lah Pweh's motives, however, were apparently more calculated, according to
Karen sources familiar with the situation. Realizing that the DKBA would likely
be attacked for its refusal to join the government's new Border Guard Force
(BGF) units, which as proposed require ethnic armies to cede control of their
arms and soldiers to the Myanmar military, he seized the initiative while
international attention was focused on the country.
Myawaddy was the only significant border town that had never been seized by
ethnic or communist forces during the 62 years of civil war that followed
Myanmar - also known as Burma - achieving independence from colonial rule in
1948. A fierce battle was fought for the town in March 1974, but Karen National
Union (KNU) and allied forces were forced to retreat after five days of
fighting. Pyathounzu was seized from Mon and Karen rebels in 1990.
At least three civilians were killed during this week's fighting, including one
Thai who was killed by a stray mortar round that landed on the Thai side of the
border. The exile-run magazine the Irrawaddy reported that witnesses saw around
30 bodies of army and DKBA soldiers in the town. At least 30 other people were
injured. At Three Pagodas Pass, near Pyathounzu, reports said that at least one
Myanmese policeman and two children were killed and more injured, including
three Thai soldiers apparently hit by an artillery round.
As many as 20,000-25,000 townspeople and villagers from Myanmar fled to
Thailand as a result of the fighting in the Myawaddy area. Refugee officials
reported that another 3,000 refugees fled the fighting in Pyathounzu.
Most of the refugees from Myawaddy returned home from across the Thai border on
Tuesday after the government announced that the DKBA had been driven out of the
town. Others have since trickled back out, over fear of new fighting or to
escape an army conscription drive to force civilians to serve as porters for
military operations. Thai army and border police units were sent to guard the
border and prevent a spillover of fighting.
Border trade was already severely curtailed by a unilateral border closure
imposed by the Myanmese government on July 19. The reasons for the closure were
never officially stated, but many observers felt it was tied to the elections.
The Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing is the most direct land route between Bangkok and
Yangon and the most significant of the trade arteries between the two
countries. The crossing at Three Pagodas Pass is less significant, but it is
close to the controversial Yadana gas pipeline and a recently agreed US$8
billion project to construct a deep-sea port at Tavoy and a road linking it to
On November 5, the Thai cabinet approved in principle a plan to establish a new
Mae Sot economic zone to increase border trade and investment as part of the
Asian Development Bank's East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) scheme. The EWEC
aims to link the economies of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam through a
network of transportation routes, especially the highway that runs through
Myawaddy and Mae Sot. Thailand was projecting that around $1 billion in profits
could be made this year through the Mae Sot–Myawaddy crossing.
Instead, Thai-Myanmar border regions are teetering towards warfare. New
fighting has also been reported in other areas of southern and central Karen
State. DKBA units initially overran several army camps and captured a deputy
battalion commander. Counterattacks by the army, however, have forced the DKBA
out of their headquarters at the border village of Waley, south of Myawaddy.
There have also been reports of DKBA units ambushing troops being sent to
reinforce units closer to the border, and that some BGF units have defected to
Lah Pweh's forces and smaller Karen ceasefire groups. Various Karen rebels may
also have joined forces with Lah Pweh, as have some Mon fighters, though its
unclear from which group.
The DKBA was formed in 1994 in response to perceived corruption by some KNU
military officers and political leaders, most of whom were Christian while the
rank and file was mostly Buddhist. The dissatisfaction led to a mutiny in the
KNU's armed wing, the KNLA, and the defectors formed an alliance with the
Myanmar Army. The split resulted in the loss of the KNU's long-time
headquarters at Manerplaw in January 1995 and eventually the loss of most of
its “liberated area” in eastern Myanmar.
In the 16 years since the split, the stability and security that came with the
DKBA's alliance with the government allowed the group's leaders to pursue
lucrative business interests, including taxation of legitimate border trade as
well as smuggling in automobiles, cattle, logging, minerals and, allegedly,
narcotics. Some of the profits were put into increasing the size of military
units and sourcing better weapons, ammunition and equipment.
By 2006 the DKBA was considered the most loyal of the ethnic organizations
allied to the junta, according to a classified Myanmese government document
seen by Asia Times Online. That loyalty was tested by the junta's demand in
April 2009 for the DKBA to join BGF scheme. The BGF is a key element of the
junta's so-called “roadmap to democracy”. It envisions the formation of new
battalions from ethnic fighters who would be paid, armed, equipped and,
crucially, commanded by the government.
DKBA leaders initially agreed to the proposal, making them the largest group to
accept the plan. The DKBA claimed at the time to have some 6,000 troops and
were on a conscription drive to increase their numbers to 9,000. Both DKBA
commander-in-chief Major General Kyaw Than and influential Colonel Maung Chit
Thu were known to be enthusiastic about the plan. The DKBA officially accepted
the plan on August 10 and a ceremony was later held at its headquarters in
Myaing Gyi Ngu, Karen State, where then-MAS head Lieutenant General Ye Myint
and other senior army officers were in attendance.
It was unclear, however, what would happen under the BGF scheme to the
extensive business interests of DKBA leaders. It is unlikely that Chit Thu and
other leaders would be so enthusiastic about joining the BGF if it meant losing
control over their lucrative sources of revenue along the Thailand-Myanmar
border. Indeed, a DKBA-led offensive in central Karen State in 2009 was known
to be tied to an expansion of the group's leaders' business interests.
Rebel rebel Lah Pweh, the DKBA's 5th Brigade leader responsible for the southern
portion of Karen State, also known as N'Kam Way, or “the Moustache”, had been
vocal about his disagreement with the BGF arrangement, which he saw as akin to
surrender. He has labeled Chit Thu and Kyaw Than as businessmen easily swayed
to the junta's will by economic concessions.
Although units under his command have been connected by Thai intelligence and
KNU sources to narcotics trafficking, to the villagers in Lah Pweh's area of
control he is widely seen as a benevolent commander. He has run interference
between villagers and abusive Myanmar army officers and used his influence
numerous times to gain restitution for abuses, including the rape of village
women by government forces.
In July, he declared that the over 500 men in his five battalions would not be
joining the BGF and rejected an offer by Ye Myint to discuss the issue. In his
opposition to the BGF, he has the support of DKBA founder and respected
Buddhist monk U Thuzana. Otherwise known as the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, U
Thuzana was reported by KNU sources to disagree with the BGF proposal.
Lah Pweh's strength has grown since July through defections of Karen fighters
reluctant to join the BGF. Estimates vary, but observers believe he has between
1,200-1,500 armed men, enough to prompt the reorganization of his brigade in
late October into ten battalions. Reports of peace overtures to the KNU have
surfaced since late 2009, including a round of talks between Lah Pwe, U Thuzana
and KNLA commander General Mu Tu in June. Lah Pweh says he does not wish to
rejoin the KNLA, where he was once a battalion commander, but is not opposed to
establishing some form of alliance.
Even with the help of the KNLA and the several smaller Karen peace groups,
observers predict he stands little chance against Myanmar's army. At least 45
battalions are permanently stationed in southern and central Karen State, or in
neighboring Mon State. The government's Southeast Command includes the 22nd
Light Infantry Division, the 12th Operations Control Command and the 19th
Operations Control Command, representing anywhere between 11,250 and 22,500
men. Other units from neighboring divisions could easily reinforce these
Yet La Pweh is not alone in his opposition to the government's BGF scheme.
Former ceasefire organizations in northern Myanmar, including the 5,000-man
Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the largest ethnic army, the 20,000-man
United Wa State Army (UWSA), have consistently rejected offers to join the BGF.
Like Lah Pweh, they see the handing over of their military wings as tantamount
In response, the junta has steadily increased pressure in the region by
reinforcing its troops in positions across from ceasefire areas. The pressure
was too much for some smaller groups, which have agreed to join the BGF. A
quick army offensive against the ethnic Kokang militia in August 2009 was
interpreted by many observers as a not-so-subtle threat to other holdouts. In
addition, the areas controlled by the former ceasefire armies were excluded
from the elections for “security concerns.” Together with areas with active
insurgencies, this meant the disenfranchisement of some 1.5 million voters.
Even had they participated, it is unlikely their votes would have had a
significant impact on the election result. During the lead-up to the November 7
vote, government officials and members of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and
Development Party (USDP) used intimidation and threats of arrest to sway voters
from supporting ethnic parties such as the Shan National Democratic Party.
Other ethnic parties, especially those in Kachin State, simply had their
registration applications rejected by the government controlled Union Election
With the elections concluded and a stage-managed USDP win in the offing, some
observers speculate the military will soon turn its attention to finally
defeating ethnic armies. The junta appears to be laying that groundwork through
increased pressure on the northern ceasefire groups as well as the New Mon
State Party (NMSP) in the south. In one significant sign, the state media has
begun referring to the KIA as “insurgents”, a term it has not used for the
organization since the group's ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994.
In anticipation of a possible government offensive, six ethnic armies announced
an alliance on November 5. Representatives of former ceasefire groups the NMSP,
KIO and the Shan State Army (North) (SSA-N) joined with the non-ceasefire KNU,
Karenni National Progressive Party and Chin National Front to form a pact to
assist each other in the event of an offensive against any member.
The UWSA and the non-ceasefire Shan State Army (South) (SSA-S) have also been
approached to join the alliance. The SSA-S declined, but said it would not rule
out the possibility in the future. Lah Pweh's troops are not members of the
alliance and it is not clear whether Lah Pweh will receive any support from
these groups. But the first shots have been fired in Myanmar's democratic
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached