Karen News The analysis of political and military situation that would be likely to impact on Myawaddy clashes in Karen State

May 6 , 2024, By Baydar (Delta)

# Introduction

A big split within the KNU in 1994 resulted in the emergence of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA/DKBO). The DKBA collaborated with and were sponsored by the Myanmar military and guided attacks on the KNU, resulting in the fall of the KNU headquarters, Manerplaw, in January, 1995.

From 1995 to 2010, conflict and killings between the Karen National Union and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, took place for more than a decade. In 2010, the Myanmar military reorganised the DKBA under their command into the Border Guard Force (BGF). Some of the DKBA forces resisted being reformed into BGF and continued as the DKBA This resulted in conflict with the Myanmar military, and an uneasy alliance with the KNU/KNLA. The DKBA did not re-affiliated with the KNU/KNLA and remains as a stand-alone organization still today.

In 2012, a state-level ceasefire agreement was made between the KNU and a peace delegation led by Minister Aung Min representing the proxy military government led by former general, Thein Sein. The resulting Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, caused dissent within the KNU, materializing at the 15th KNU Congress, where leaders who were in favor with the National Ceasefire Agreement dominated.

In 2015, the KNU withdrew from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), and on October 15, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed again. By the time the KNU made a state-level ceasefire agreement in 2012, its brigade-and-district levels were also directed to sign it. However, it was found that the KNU Brigade (5) of Mutraw District (Hpa-pun District) and Brigade (2) of Taungoo District were not involved in the ceasefire process.

Since the end of the 15th KNU Congress, a great deal of political rivalries among the KNU leaders appeared – the group that accepted the NCA and the group that did not – but no major rifts had occurred within them.

During the ceasefire period, a “Committee for Karen Armed Groups Unity”, sponsored by the KNU, which was comprised of 4 Karen armed groups – KNU/KNLA, BGF, DKBA, and the KNU/KNLA-PC led by Gen. Htin Maung (2007) – were formed in the interest of a national unity. The BGF leader, Saw Chit Thu, was the vice-chairman of the committee.

In addition, during the signing of the NCA with Thein Sein government in 2015, each of three Karen armed groups – the KNU, DKBA, and KNU/KNLA-PC – signed the agreement together. After the signing, there was no longer armed conflict among them, and they worked together on special national days such as Karen New Year, Karen Martyr’s Day, Karen Revolution Day to name some. This arrangement was neither managed under a single group , nor was it under the leadership of the KNU. The KNU also did not make any attempts for political leadership, instead focused on preventing armed conflict between the groups.

# The SLORC/SPDC’s military strategy or trap

During the period of the military reign under its SLORC/SPDC from 2005, the military juntas stopped using its “eradication” strategy to suppress the Karen armed groups in Karen State. Instead, a “containment” strategy was applied, that trapped the Karen armed groups into being implicated in illicit drugs. As a result, drug production, distribution, and consumption had grown tremendously in Karen State in 10 years.

After the KNU signed the NCA in 2015, the junta’s “containment” strategy made the KNU complicit in transnational crimes. After signing the NCA, the KNU was first offered car permits and largely open to

international aid. The biggest ones were the Shwe Kokko New City project and KK Park Project, which opened the way for KNU leaders to become involved in crimes. Some KNU leaders, who did not accept the NCA, saw the Shwe Kokko New City project as a trap, and avoided being involved .

After the 16th KNU Congress in 2017, leaders, who did not accept the NCA, were removed, while leaders, who accepted the government’s NCA, became more dominant in the KNU. The military regime had successfully expanded its ‘trap strategy’ not only to Shwe Kukko City in KNU Brigade (7) area, but to KK Park in Mehtawthalay in KNU Brigade (6) area. To implicate the KNU in transnational crimes, the military junta gave the KNU powers, as well as land renting, setting up a company, providing security, and making payments in advance for many years.

#Recent Myawaddy fighting, the KNU’s challenges and opportunities

After the military coup attempt in 2021, there was no possibility of the KNU-led peace talks based on the NCA agreement. As the KNU, however, had not officially announced that the NCA agreement was null and void, it must be considered that it continued to hold on.

If the NCA agreement is declared null and void, the KNU might be concern the communication channel with the military regime would be cut off. It should also be noted Pado Mahn Nyein Maung, who is a member of the KNU Central Executive Committee, is also a member of the military appointed State Administration Council (SAC).

At the same time, the KNU became deeply involved in the affairs of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and the National Unity Government (NUG) who were formed from elected lawmakers in opposition to the coup. It is likely the KNU adopted a two-pronged strategy of cooperating with the NUG, while maintaining contact with the military junta. Similarly, the KNU had been leading revolutionary alliance groups for decades, but after the 15th KNU Congress in 2012, it withdrew from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), this showed that the KNU lacked serious leadership on the coalition pro-democracy forces. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the KNU considered that the NUG, (as happened with the NCGUB that was formed in 1990 in response to the military’s failure to recognize the result of the election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party), and that it would also fade away, and the military would be able to maintain its grip on power. In terms of strategy the KNU was also likely to control the balance of power between the SAC and the NUG.

#The situation in which fighting broke out in KNU territory after the signing of the NCA agreement

As mentioned above, after the NCA was signed in 2015, there were many disagreements and dissent between KNU leaders who accepted the NCA and those that did not. After the end of the 16th KNU Congress in 2017, a group, that did not accept the NCA, emerged. Named as the ‘KNU Concerned Group’, it gained support among some KNU/KNLA brigades and battalions, as well as being very close to Karen CBOs and CSOs. Following 17th KNU Congress in 2023, the ‘KNU Concerned Group’ faded away. In the past, the ‘KNU Concerned Group’ made political positions and statements in parallel with the KNU Central Committee.

Since the signing of the state-level ceasefire agreement between the KNU and the Thein Sein USDP government in 2012, fighting stopped in many of the KNU brigades, but conflict continued in the KNU 5th Brigade area, especially from October 2020, when large bases of the military regime were attacked.

After the military coup in 2021, the KNU 5th Brigade attacked and captured the military regime’s camp on March 27, and took and occupied three military strongholds within three months. Since 2021, the fighting in the KNU’s 5th Brigade has become more intense, with the military regime using jet fighters to launch airstrikes against the KNU. On the ground, the regime ordered hundreds of BGF forces to reinforce its troops. Once more it was Karen were engaged in fighting and killing each other.

#The start of fighting in the KNU 6th Brigade area

After the military coup in 2021, a great number of Myanmar young activists (Gen-Z) and CDM members arrived in the KNU 6th Brigade area, wanting to fight back against the military junta. They noticed there were various armed groups such as KNU, DKBA, KNU-KNLA-PC, and BGF, but at first, they did not seem to realize how they were different from one another. In particular, they did not seem to know that the BGF was under the direct command of the military junta – they considered Karen State’s Myawaddy, Lay Kay Kaw, Hpalu etc. as liberated areas.

They became more cautious when the junta troops entered and carried out inspections in the area of Lay Kay Kaw. At that time, all three Karen armed groups had signed the NCA, therefore, there was no fighting at all in the area. The CRPH/NUG MPs also arrived in large numbers in the KNU

6th Brigade area. The KNU’s statements proved that people, who had arrived in KNU territory due to the 2021 coup attempt and subsequent violent crackdown and jailing of people protesting the coup and the overturning of the NLD’s massive election win, were accepted based on humanitarian grounds.

The people arriving in the KNU resistance areas became dependent on the KNU for military training and weapons, so they could start fighting back against the military junta. Battalions under the command of the KNU provided military training. However, due to the fact that the KNU had signed the NCA agreement during the Thein Sein government’s control and had no political will to declare it null and void, the KNU seemed to be regulating the conditions for being engaged in fighting.

Nevertheless, there had been fierce fighting in the area of the KNU 5th Brigade since March 2021, and the KNU managed to occupy military junta bases one by one. After the signing of the NCA in 2015, the KNU was able to stop the military offensive the KNU 5th Brigade launched against the military junta. The KNU headquarters, however, could no longer control it after 2021. Additionally, the young men, who arrived in the KNU 6th Brigade area, also showed their tremendous enthusiasm to fight against the military junta.

The NUG’s Minister of Defense (NUG-MOD) joined forces with the KNU and began to discuss how to cooperate with the ethnic armed resistance groups to take military action in the South, North, and Central regions, etc., as well as discussing with the DKBA commanders, who did not accept the transformation of the DKBA into the BGF and fought back against the military junta, which resulted in the start of fighting in Hpalu area near Myawaddy. Similarly, fighting led by the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) also took place in Wale area.

After that, there were armed clashes in Lay Kay Kaw area. The district chairman of the 6th Brigade had repeatedly issued letters of protest against the occurrence of such fighting in the 6th Brigade area, pointing out how much the NCA and the KNU 6th Brigade area along the Asian Highway were important.

This is proof the NCA agreement had not been officially declared null and void even after the military coup attempt in 2021. Within the KNU controlled areas, the 6th Brigade was the one with the largest number of People Defense Forces (PDF), not only having a great number of armed forces, but also getting a lot of supports from the NUG and Myanmar diaspora. As a result, the young PDF fighters in the area of the KNU 6th Brigade had been armed enough in 3 years and were fully motivated to be

engaged in fighting. The PDFs began to win as they joined forces with battle-hardened and experienced KNLA soldiers, demoralizing the military junta troops, who now saw themselves fighting superior soldiers.

#How did the fighting in Myawaddy begin?

Ethnic armed resistance groups – Arakan, Kachin, Chin, Karenni – had been occupying cities in their own regions during their attacks on the military regime’s bases. This posed the question why Karen armed groups had not been able to capture border towns close to their territory raised the question of what is the purpose of the KNU. I believed the combined Karen armed forces would be able to easily occupy, not only Myawaddy, but Hpa-an the Karen State capital, if all four Karen armed forces were united. The current Myawaddy fighting answers the question – “Why does it end in deadlock like this?’

The first reason is the ‘NCA trap’, and the second is the “containment” strategy. The main impact of the containment strategy is that the KNU has been implicated in transnational crimes.

Before the 2023 KNU Congress, 68 Karen civil society organizations sent an open letter to the KNU, calling for the Congress to be held only after identifying and taking action against the leaders involved in the KK Park project. If failed to do so. The leaders of the KNU Central Executive Committee were urged to resign. However, the KNU Congress was held by dividing into three sections. In Section

(3) where the KNU Central Executive Committee and Central Committee leaders were to be elected, the 5th Brigade and the 2nd Brigade boycotted the election.

In brief, the KNU could no longer lead the coalition forces as before, and led to a great deal of crippling dissent within the organization over its political approach. The biggest crisis for the KNU was that they had been caught in the illegality trap of Shwe Kokko and KK Park projects. At the last 17th KNU Congress, the KNU formed an “investigation commission” to identify and take action against KNU leaders involved in the online gambling, money laundering and scam syndicate, but until now, no information has been made public.

I believe KNU leaders should be at least aware that they had been framed by the military to be implicated in crimes. It’s likely that some KNU leaders failed to predict such a large political crisis. It is undisputable the KNU is facing a tremendous crisis today.

The current crisis is not only for the KNU, but also for the BGF, led by its leader, Saw Chit Thu. It is time for both groups to decide which path they are taking. Notably, the BGF has a better control over its organization’s power – everyone follows orders and decisions – good or bad – made by its leader Chit Thu.

Before the start of the recent Myawaddy fighting , Saw Chit Thu, claimed publicly that the BGF no longer wanted to kill Karen people, and changed the name of BGF to the “Karen National Army (KNA)”.

Saw Chit Thu’s words were really aimed at providing only a simple person’s grasp of the political situation, because he, as a subordinate under the military regime, had not only spent two decades of armed conflict fighting Karen. Saw Chit Thu had also been the target of negative criticisms from Karen people at home and abroad.

Before the Myawaddy fighting began, Saw Chit Thu, announced the BGF had transformed into the KNA, and when the battle was about to end, he revealed that there would no longer be a KNA, as he had reverted back to the BGF. It shocked and angered not only Karen people, but also the people of Myanmar. I was not surprised at all. The outcome of the Myawaddy fighting depended on two situations. I speculated that the military junta would have benefited most from these situations. It’s unquestionable that it would have gained 50 or 30 % of benefit from this fighting, But, it is hard to say the junta won the battle, even though benefited .

The current Myawaddy battle was not a main target for the junta, but the illegal operations run out of Shwe Kokko. Reportedly, the military junta had promised China to eradicate the money laundering syndicate operating in KK Park and Shwe Kokko. If they failed to do so, the military occupation achieved by the Northern Alliance could be rapidly extended into the capital, Naypyidaw, with the support of China. The military junta, aware of the consequences if this was to happen, had made a rapid ceasefire agreement with the Northern Alliance,

agreeing to share up to 70 % of the border trade income with the Northern Alliance. Similarly, the regime promised China to crack down on Shwe Kokko and the KK Park money laundering syndicate. If the Shwe Kokko was to be cleaned up, it’s unquestionable that the BGF leader, Saw Chit Thu, would also go.

Facing these consequences, Saw Chit Thu immediately calculated and announced the BGF would transform into the KNA, angering the military regime. The regime approached and negotiated with either the KNU or the BGF during the battle of Myawaddy. Reports the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and the junta officials met and discussed the elimination of online gambling, financial scams, money laundering activities on the border on April 26. It is understood may have China provided financial assistance to the regime to clean up Shwe Kokko and KK Park.

Therefore, we can imagine

· How will the resistance forces continue to work on the situation of the Myawaddy clashes?

· What will happen if the Shwe Kokko is eradicated by the military junta?

· What kind of crises the military junta will face if they fail to clear the Shwe Kokko.

Remark – The contents in this article are the opinion of the columnist.

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