With the conclusion of the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong on 3 September 2015, it became even clearer that the path towards peace and a general union is problematic. While the conference was generally lauded as bringing all stakeholders closer together, it has further highlighted the many serious issues the government faces in creating a Federal Union that everyone can accept.
Myanmar lists 135 ethnic groups including eight major groups – the majority Burman, Shan, Karen, Chin, Karenni, Rakhine, Mon, and Kachin. With the exception of the Burman, all major groups are recognised as having state level recognition. After the failure of the government to fully institute promises made at Panglong in 1947 and in the 1948 constitution (See EBO Background Paper No.3/2016 – The 21st Century Panglong Conference) a federalism movement sprang up in 1961.
The Federalism movement saw Aung San’s promise of ‘If a Bamar receives one kyat, you will also receive one kyat.’ as the basis of equality for every ethnic group and as such it was seen by ethnic leaders that a Burman, or Bamar, state was necessary to bring true equality to the Union. Although the federalism movement was crushed in 1962 by Ne Win, who feared that calls for federalism meant secession from the Union, ethnic leaders still see federalism envisioned through Panglong as the way forward.
Yet again it would appear that the Kyaw Htet led DKBA is causing problems for residents in Karen State. Clashes between the DKBA-Kyaw Htet and Karen Border Guard Force have led to the temporary shutdown of a road connecting Myaing Gyi Nyu village with Mae Tha Waw according to a recent Irrawaddy report.
The group responsible appears, at least according to media reports, the remnants of a small unit once led by Lt. Na Ma Kyar (Identified as a Major in The Irrawaddy and DVB reports). The group had gained notoriety for taxation and apparently kidnapping. According to one Irrawaddy report, quoting a local resident close to the group, Maj. Na Ma Kyar was killed by one of five elephant mahouts who he had kidnapped for ransom,
First, they freed one mahout and asked him to bring the ransom. But he didn’t come back. Then they freed another two, who also didn’t come back. So they attempted to arrest new mahouts. One mahout stabbed [Na Ma Kyar] with a knife out of fear, almost severing his neck,
In an attempt to add some legitimacy to the group’s actions there have also been rumours that,
. . . the Burma Army, together with allied Karen militia the Border Guard Force, had killed Maj. Na Ma Kyar and invented the story of him being killed by a mahout as a cover. Other rumours have asserted that three Na Ma Kyar group members lost their lives while trying to rescue Maj. Na Ma Kyar from Burma Army captivity.
According to The Irrawaddy, the Burma Army and the Border Guard Force had previously launched a joint attack on the house of Maj. Na Ma Kyar in Pyabin Village of Kawkareik Township On 11 May, but Maj. Na Ma Kyar had escaped.
Col. Saw San Aung, who commanded the unit led by Maj. Na Ma Kyar, has denied that the Mahouts had killed Na Ma Kyar claiming his death was due to a logging dispute.
Recent Na Mar Kyar activities were reported by Karen News on 6 August and detailed a clash that had occurred two days previous. According to the report, the armed clash took place between Kawt Nwe and Tadangu village near the new Kawkareik-Myawaddy Asia Highway on August 4.
Lieutenant Na Ma Kyar’s troops clashed with troops from BGF 1017 led by Deputy Battalion Commander Major Saw Kyaw and based near the Asia Highway. The two sides exchanged both small and heavy weapons for half an hour and a shell hit a house in Tadangu village injuring a family of four.
Fighting between Lt Na Ma Kyar’s group and local BGF troops have been a regular event in areas near the Kawkareik-Myawaddy Asia Highway for over a year. Especially, after the BGF troops were put in charge to secure the road in mid-2015 after clashes with the DKBA occurred over taxation.
On 2 July 2015, fighting had broken out along the newly constructed area of the Asia Highway between Myanmar Army Infantry Battalion 231 under Military Operation Command 12 and soldiers from the DKBA Kloh Htoo Wah Tactical Unit under the command of Brigadier General Kyaw Thet and Colonel San Aung.
As a result of the fighting, a joint BGF/Myanmar Army offensive was launched to clear out the renegade faction. The actions of both Brigadier General Kyaw Thet and Colonel San Aung resulted in their expulsion from the DKBA. According to one media report, DKBA representatives in a meeting with Karen State government officials earlier in July had said the two senior officers and their followers were beyond their control.
In a statement issued in mid-January, General Kyaw Thet said he would be reconstituting the former Democratic Karen Buddhist Army composed of members of small factions who had been dismissed from their organisations. According to the statement,
The members of the DKBA are … sacked members of Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and those members of the old DKBA who refused the order by the former State Peace and Development Council to form the BGF in 2010,
Disturbingly, the group not only took the original DKBA name but have sworn allegiance to the original leader of the DKBA, U Thuzana. U Thuzana recently made headlines after his followers erected Buddhist shrines on the properties of a Church and a Mosque.
With recent clashes between DKBA-Kyaw Htet and the BGF, it would appear that the DKBA-Kyaw Htet not only wants to preserve the name of the original but also live up to the original DKBA’s reputation.