DKBA Commander Saw Lah Pwe dies

General Saw Lah Pwe (aka Nakhamwe) the commander-in-chief of the Klo Htoo Baw Karen Organisation/Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (KKO/DKBA) died in Bago Hospital yesterday afternoon after suffering from throat cancer.

The group, which originally split from the Karen National Union (KNU) on 21 December 1994, was thrown into the international spotlight on 7 November 2010 after taking control of parts of Myawaddy on the Thai-Burma border.

While the majority of the DKBA had accepted the BGF proposal, the military government’s plans for fully incorporating the DKBA into the Border Guard Force program were destroyed by the failure of the DKBA’s 5th Brigade (formerly 906 and 907 Battalions) Colonel Lah Pwe (aka Nakhamwe) to agree.[1]

Concerns over Colonel Lah Pwe’s intentions had already been aired by DKBA leader Kyaw Than during a transformation meeting with an SPDC delegation on 8 October 2010. Kyaw Than had asked Gen. Maung Maung Ohn what he should do about Nakhamwe and the General replied that:

‘It depends on his will; we have given him one month. We will fight if he does not come back. That’s all. There are no insurgencies allowed on the border after the election. All DKBA must become a Border Guard Force. At the end of 2010 everyone must be a Border Guard Force or we will seize all people with weapons…, we are not allowed to leave the KNU on the border – we will clean everything, we have a lot of troops – we don’t need to worry.’

Despite such threats, Colonel Lah Pwe, commanding a force of approximately four hundred men, remained steadfast that he would not surrender, stating in one interview that:

‘I am a DKBA soldier and will fight for my people… Even if they tell me to give them my weapons and badge, I will never hand them over. That would be like taking our bones and just leaving flesh.’[2]

Instead, he adopted the name Klo Htoo Baw (Yellow Gold Drum) battalion and reorganised his forces into 902, 901, 905, 907, 903, and the newly formed 909 battalion; the latter was under his direct control and consisted of at least 200 armed troops.

610x457xpic-myawaddy-fighting-pagespeed-ic-wpcf_728x413While there was little doubt that Colonel Lah Pwe would not surrender, the seizure of Myawaddy town by troops loyal to him came as a surprise to many. As the election was underway on 7 November 2010, at least 80 troops from 902 Battalion, under the command of Major Kyaw Thet, began seizing various buildings in the town.[3]

Original reports of the town’s seizure were met with some incredulity with media outlet Mizzima contacting a number of officials both within the KNU and people in the town.[4] KNU vice-chairman David Thakabaw was quoted as saying that:

‘We heard this news too. It’s impossible because there are a lot of junta troops stationed in Myawaddy.If this news is true, we will see a lot of fighting with these troops.’

While Border Guard Force (BGF) Battalion 1019 Commander Lieutenant Colonel Saw Hlaing Thein stressed:

‘How can Myawaddy be seized without firing a single shot?Did he seize the town in person? Which place did he seize – a bush?This news is nonsense.When we were in the KNU we had to fight hard to enter Myawaddy.I doubt if he could enter Myawaddy without firing a single shot.Myawaddy is currently calm and quiet.Military Operation Command 19 has more than 4,000 personnel and the BGF has more than 4,000 troops deployed in Myawaddy.It’s not true.’

A Burmese Immigration officer also commented:

‘No, this is not true.It would be clear if it was true.One would hear gunfire in the town and notice that something in the town is different.It must be a trick.If it were true, you would find DKBA soldiers in uniform roaming in the town.They’re not allowed even to wear their uniforms here, let alone bear arms.

The fact that the move came as some surprise to the KNU was further supported by its secretary 1, Major Saw Hla Ngwe:

‘When I contacted my men in Myawaddy, they replied to me that enemy outposts had been overrun.We can’t confirm this news.We haven’t seen anything overrun, seizures or positioning of DKBA troops, based on our understanding of military training and tactics.There are no signs of occupation of the town.There are no facts to support or confirm these reports.’

The actions of the DKBA seemed to have taken at least the higher members of the Karen Nation Union by surprise. With the Border Guard Force issue looming, the KNU had appointed a special representative, Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung, to handle DKBA affairs. However, it would appear that this had produced little in the two sides’ abilities to work with each other. Instead, Lah Pwe had been in direct contact with the KNLA via its 101 Battalion commander, Col Paw Doh.

From the outset, it looked as if the Myawaddy attack, which began at 8.40 in the morning, may have been the rogue action of the 902 commander Major Kyaw Htet. Earlier, on 20 September 2010, Kyaw Thet and approximately 20 of his soldiers had surrounded a Police station in ward four of Myawaddy. The troops were apparently seeking to force the police into returning unlicensed cars that had been seized earlier. A tense standoff continued until the arrival of Burma Army troops who, in turn, besieged the DKBA until Kyaw Thet finally withdrew.[5] Despite this, and knowing that Kyaw Thet was allied with Lah Pwe, the Burmese authorities had made no move to restrict the group’s movements or disarm them. Instead, they were allowed to continue their duties of manning trading gates along the Moei River. This meant that 902 troops were already in the town and it thus expedited their ability to quickly seize a number of important government building and secure the Thai-Burma friendship bridge.

After the outbreak of hostilities, Colonel Lah Pwe was soon quoted explaining the reasons for the attack as:

‘They [Burmese army] announced that they will shoot people who don’t vote [in today’s elections].So people called on us to seize the town… In order to win votes in the elections, [the junta] is bullying and forcing people to vote. But the people want to boycott [the vote], so the soldiers are holding them at gunpoint and our troops had to intervene and take sides with the people.’[6]

Who actually called on Lah Pwe to seize the town is unclear, although it has been reported that Kyaw Thet had already stated that it was his intention to seize the town at least the day before.[7] It was also reported that a number of threats by the Township Election Committee had been made consistently every day since 3 November 2010. Colonel Lah Pwe maintains that these threats ordered all people to vote for the USDP and those who didn’t would be shot.[8] One of the DKBA’s Tactical Operations Commanders in the town, prior to 7 November, confirmed that the Election Committee had ordered all villagers to vote and, while he does not remember a specific threat to shoot people being made, there had been an increase in Burma Army patrols in the town in what he believes was an attempt to intimidate the local population.[9]

Regardless of the reason, the subsequent fighting, which lasted most of the morning of Monday, 8 November 2010, killed three and injured twenty.[10] In addition, an 81mm artillery shell and three shells from an M79 launcher landed in Thailand injuring 19 people and killing one. By Monday night, over 12,000 people had sought sanctuary in Thailand and this would increase to over 20,000 by the next day.

The Burma Army had originally fled from its positions when DKBA troops began operations against them and it appears they were ill-equipped to deal with the attacks until reinforcements arrived. Further fighting soon erupted along the Thai-Burma border, including at Colonel Lah Pwe’s main headquarters at Waley and also at Phaya Thonsu (Three Pagoda’s Pass), the latter resulting in over 4,000 people fleeing across the border. It appears that the DKBA action at Phaya Thonsu was supported by KNLA troops from 16 Battalion, 6th Brigade, suggesting that although the KNU leadership had not been informed of the DKBA’s actions, at least local KNLA commanders were aware and prepared. According to media reports, the combined DKBA/KNLA force burnt down various military and government offices including those of the Special Bureau (SB), Agriculture, Forestry, and Post and Telegraph Departments on Monday, 8 November. By Tuesday, 9 November, Karen troops had retreated.

Completely ignoring the fact that the attacks had been conducted by Colonel Lah Pwe’s troops, the New Light of Myanmar was quick to blame the violence on the Karen National Union:

‘A group of KNU terrorists from south of Myawady opened fire with heavy weapons at five different places in Myawady at about 8.45 am yesterday.A total of three innocent were killed and 20 injured in the incident.The injured were rushed to Myawady hospital and provided with necessary treatment by officials concerned.Due to shootings of KNU terrorists, shells of heavy weapons also exploded near Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge and Chinese temple in Maesot in Thailand, leaving some innocent people injured.In [a] similar incident at noon yesterday, a group of KNU terrorists opened fire of small and heavy weapons from north of Phaya Thonsu in Kayin State, causing one member of Myanmar Police Force dead and four Tatmadaw members and one service personnel of the Township Forest Department injured.’[11]

The Karen National Union’s response stated that:

‘We, the Karen National Union (KNU), strongly condemn recent attacks by Burma’s military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), on Myawaddy Town and several other locations in Burma’s border areas, where at least 3 civilians were killed, and more injured.These latest attacks are part of the SPDC’s systematic violence against Burma’s ethnic peoples.

The conflict in Myawaddy began on 7 November, the day of Burma’s first elections in 20 years, when civilians complained of being threatened and intimidated to vote for the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), rather than the local Karen party which was their preference.Brigade-5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) led by Colonel Saw Lah Bwe – who refused to transform to the Border Guard Force under the control of SPDC Army – took control of Myawaddy to protect these people, without using weapons.Col Saw Lah Bwe had said that he expected the SPDC Army to enter into negotiation to resolve the situation.

However, on Monday, the 8th of November 2010, at 9 a.m., the SPDC Army responded with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, despite the presence of many civilians in the town…These attacks are all part of the SPDC’s policy of eliminating ethnic opposition, including ceasefire groups that have refused to be under its direct control as a Border Guard Force, as required by their 2008 Constitution.

The SPDC has accused the KNU of carrying out these attacks. However, the KNU and DKBA Brigade-5 share the same policy not to hurt civilians but to protect them. The KNU supports the DKBA’s actions as they were taken in resistance to the SPDC’s elections that do not represent any progress towards creating a democratic federal union in which the ethnic people’s fundamental human rights would be protected.’[12]

One KNU official has noted that it was common for most Burmese authorities to threaten civilians when they wanted something.Therefore it is unlikely that such a threat, in context, would be the sole reason for the DKBA to seize the town, especially if Kyaw Thet had already announced his intention prior to 7 November.

In response to the Myawaddy attack, the Burma Army, initially caught off guard, retaliated by launching a number of operations around Phaya Thonsu, Kya-in-Seikkyi, Kanelay, Phalu, and Waley.In one instance, on the evening of 10 November until the early morning the following day, the Burma Army indiscriminately fired 139 artillery shells into Kya-in-Seikkyi killing a 17 year-old girl and wounding her brother.[13]There were also reports of a least one village headman being beaten to death and that villagers had also been forced to porter for Burmese troops.

By 11 November, the Burma Army had entered Waley town after a sustained shelling campaign and razed a number of buildings including the house of Lah Pwe. In a somewhat belated attempt to curtail the activities of any DKBA forces left in the area, Police and Burma Army troops also began searching, on 15 October, the houses of DKBA members in Myawaddy and apparently confiscated all military equipment and uniforms.[14]

Clashes between the Burma army, the DKBA, and the KNLA continued as Burma Army reinforcements were dispatched to areas where Karen resistance forces operated. Civilians were frequently forced to flee across the Thai-Burma border. However, Thai authorities were reluctant to house any more refugees, and civilians were frequently ordered back or forced to hide along the border. On 28 November 2010, the village of Phalu came under attack forcing an estimated thousand villagers to flee across the border.Phalu, between Myawaddy and Waley, came under attack as 2nd Battalion DKBA forces in the area tried to defend their outpost and prevent a supply and escape corridor being opened up to Waley.

In its 15 February 2011 Analysis report, the Back Pack Health Workers Team (BPHWT) estimated that by 12 February 2011, it and local CBOs were caring for over 10,000 civilians, living in unrecognized hiding sites, along the Thai-Burma Border.[15] Despite the fact that fighting continued, Thai authorities consistently sent villagers who were fleeing the fighting back across the border. In one incident, on 13 January 2011, soldiers from the Royal Thai Army burnt down shelters at a temporary hiding site in Phop Phra district in an effort to force the 436 villagers seeking refuge there to return to Burma.[16] In addition to those people seeking shelter in Thailand, it was estimated that there may have been be up to 10,000 displaced people hiding in Burma.[17]

In an attempt to further strengthen its structure the Klo Htoo Baw Battalion reformed its military units in April 2011. The new structure was composed of two military strategic units known as the Klo Htoo Wah and the Klo Htoo Lah Battalions operating under the DKBA’s Klo Htoo Baw headquarters. The reorganisation was partly in response to the failure of the Government’s BGF programme which saw some units, led by Saw Beeh, defect to the Klo Htoo Baw after fighting with their superiors. As noted by a DKBA information officer:

The DKBA was not well organized when we fought against the SPDC [regime] on election-day last November. Later we reorganized our structure when Major Saw Beeh led a breakaway group [over a 1,000 soldiers] from the BGF and aligned with us.[18]

The Klo Htoo Wah strategic unit was led by Colonel Saw Kyaw Thet and operated in the Kawkariek, Myawaddy and Kyaikdone areas while Major Saw Beeh’s fighters would operate in the Hlaing Bwe and Myaing Gyi Ngu area.

Despite the reorganisation, the group reacted positively to overtures from the Government and met its negotiating team in November 2011 for preliminary discussions. On 12 December, 2011 the DKBA met again with Government negotiators and signed a six-point agreement which consisted of the following:

  1. It is agreed to approve initial peace agreement signed by Kayin State Peace Making Group and Klo Htoo Baw (former DKBA) on 3 November 2011
  2. Kayin State is an important part of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. It is agreed not to secede Kayin State from the Union.
  3. It is agreed to uphold Non-disintegration of the Union, Non-disintegration of National Solidarity and Perpetuation of Sovereignty forever.
  4. It is agreed to cooperate with the government inregional development, settlement of members of Klo Htoo Baw group and their families and improvement of socio-economic status in Sukali region under existing laws, basing temporarily in Sone Hsi Myaing region.
  5. It is agreed to cooperate with the Union government in the fight against narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.
  6. It is agreed to continue dialogue for establishing eternal peace.[19]

By January 2012, the Karen National Union had entered into substantive peace negotiations with the Government. Consequently, the Klo Htoo Baw Battalion began to reassess it political position. This was further helped by the return to Karen State of Mahn Robert Ba Zan, son of KNU founder Rober Zan. From April 1-2 2012, a conference was held at Kaw Thoo Moe Kee monastery, in Karen State. Here the Karen Klo Htoo Baw Organisation was formed and shortly after a statement was issued outlining its principles:

KKO is recognizes the KNU is a mother organization, and will support the KNU.

KKO promises to gain Karen Independence and to follow Saw Ba U Gyi 4 principles.

To protect Karen dignity, values and identity

To implement equality and self-determination, national unity and development, to build a federal union and long lasting peace process.

KKO will not allow trafficking (selling and transportation) of drugs and narcotics. Cooperate with other agencies to protect the drug.[20]

U Thuzana former spiritual leader of the original DKBA was declared to be the main leader while Mahn Robert Ba Zan was named as Chairman of a 19 member executive committee.

However, the group suffered a major setback when Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board placed a one million baht bounty on Lah Pwe for drug offences. Based on a court warrant from 2003, Saw Lah Pwe vehemently denied the allegations. In a further development, mid-September 2012 during an election dispute the two main KKO leaders, Mahn Robert Ba Zan and Gon Aung were dismissed due to the fact that:

Mahn Robert Bazan and Saw Gon Aung broke the organization rules by attending an ethnic meeting in the Thai city of Chiang Mai on September 9.

And also:

. . . both Mahn Robert Bazan (the chairman) and Saw Gon Aung (the general secretary) are illegible as they are both foreign citizens.[21]

Most recently, the DKBA was one of the eight signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement on 15 October 2015.

Saw Lah Pwe’s funeral will take place on 19 March at the KKO/DKBA’s Soneseemyaing HQ.


[1] There has been some confusion in regards to the naming of some DKBA Battalions. Lah Pwe had formerly commanded 907 and 906 Battalions and the DKBA had been designated under the brigade structure of 555, 333 and 999. Although the date is unclear, these brigade areas were designated as numbers 1 to 5. Telephone conversation via translator with Colonel Lah Pwe, 9 January 2011

[2] ‘Karen Armies Unite to Face Threat of War’, Alex Ellgee, The Irrawaddy, 7 August 2010

[3] Kyaw Htet would be expelled from the group in 2015.

[4] ‘Myawaddy ‘not overrun by breakaway DKBA group’’, Mizzima, 7 November 2010

[5] ‘Myawaddy police besieged by DKBA troops’, Mizzima, 21 September 2010

[6] ‘DKBA renegades seize border town’, Naw Noreen, DVB, 7 November 2010

[7] Personal conversation with KNU official, 19 November 2010

[8] Telephone conversation (via translator) with Colonel Lah Pwe, 9 January 2011. One KNU official has noted that it is common for most Burmese authorities to threaten civilians when they want something. It is unlikely therefore that such a threat, in context, would be the sole reason for the DKBA to seize the town, especially if Kyaw Thet had already announced his intention prior to the 7th of November.

[9] Telephone conversation via translator with DKBA Tactical Operations Commander, 9 January 2011

[10] ‘KNU terrorists shell Myawady, Phaya Thonsu, leaving some innocent people dead, injured’, NLM, 10 November 2010

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘KNU Statement Condemning Election Related Violence in Burma’s Border Areas’, KNU, 10 October 2010

[13] ‘FBR Report: School girl killed, villagers wounded and hundreds displaced as the Burma Army continues attacks in Central Karen State.’, Free Burma Rangers, 20 November 2010

[14] ‘DKBA Property searched, confiscated.’, Naw Noreen, DVB, 15 October 2010

[15] ‘Update on the Conflict and Displacement of Civilians along the Thai‐Burma Border’, Back Pack Health Worker Team (BPHWT), 15 February 2011

[16] accessed 19 January 2011

[17] ‘Situation Report: Promoting the Protection of Newly Displaced Civilians Affected by Conflict and Increased Insecurities on the Thai-Burma Border Mid-December 2010 to 11th January 2011’, Back Pack Health Worker Team (BPHWT), 12 January 2010

[18] ‘DKBA reform’, Saw Khar Su Nyar, KIC, 12 Septmeber 2011

[19] ‘Six points agreed in Union level peace talks with Klo Htoo Baw (former DKBA)’, New Light of Myanmar, 13 December 2011

[20] ‘The Statement of the first Klo Htoo Baw Karen Organization’s Conference 01/2012’

KKO, April 2, 2012

[21] ‘Gunshots and resignations disrupt militia elections’, Nan Thoo Lei, Karen News, 13 September 2012

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