A Dangerous Calculation

The Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B) Offensives in Shan State

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As the Myanmar Government continued to prepare for its ongoing Union Peace Conference to be held in February 2017 a number of attacks occurred in border areas of northern Myanmar’s Shan state on 20 November 2016. An alliance of four ethnic armed groups launched simultaneous attacks on government military outposts and police stations in Muse and Kutkai townships as well as Muse border trade centre. Their attacks also covered Monekoe, Kyukoke, Phangsai, Pangsang, Manken and Kyinsankyawk (Honang).

Led by the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA), the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B), which also comprises Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) ostensibly launched the attacks in response to a continuing military offensive launched against its members in August 2016 by the Myanmar military. In a statement released on 21 November 2016, the alliance said,

The Burmese armed forces have been launching offensive attacks in the ethnic territories of Kachin, Kokang, Ta’ang, Arakan and Shan and military pressures are increasingly mounted. The Burmese armed forces have also intensified not only shelling 105 – 120 mm heavy artilleries targeted at innocent civilians but also arresting, torturing and killing indigenous peoples.

Although there are holding discussions between Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Burmese government for a nationwide peace, the Burma army has continued launching more offensive attacks that can break Myanmar’s internal peace. The Burma armed forces have been assaulting to destroy all political and military struggles of the ethnic peoples because they have no will to solve the Myanmar’s political problem by politically peaceful negotiation methods.[i]

To download the full paper please click here

[i] Statement by Northern Alliance, Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) | November 21, 2016

DKBA (Buddhist) on the move

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It would appear after losing most of their territory to the Myanmar Army’s Border Guard Force the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA-Buddhist, have decided to move operations to northern Shan State. According to a recent Irrawaddy article, the group has joined the Northern Alliance – Burma.

The Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B) consists of four ethnic armed groups—the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA). The alliance launched an offensive on Myanmar Army positions in several townships including Muse, Kutkai, and Namkham in Shan State on Nov. 20.

The report quotes one of the DKBA’s leaders, San Aung, as saying,

As we could not be active in our former area we have moved to a new area to continue our revolution,

A TNLA secretary Col. Tar Phone Kyaw confirmed that San Aung’s soldiers had joined the alliance and would be “working together to fight the Burma Army.”

The report also notes,

Col. San Aung, who is on the Burma Army watch list, has made long and arduous journeys across the country to join ethnic armed groups in the past. He was once based in Wang Hai with the Shan State Army-North and recently fought with the AA in Arakan State.

It must be noted that it is unlikely that San Aung would have been ‘based’ at the SSPP’s Wanhai HQ, although he would most likely have been there seeking support. It remains unclear how many troops have in fact joined him.

The report notes, quoting the Ministry of Defence, that,

Seven members of the DKBA splinter group surrendered to the Burma Army in Myawaddy Township, Karen State on Jan. 1 after disagreeing with Col. San Aung’s actions.

The decision to move his troops to northern Shan State did not go down well with some of his followers with, according to the President’s Office, 23 more members of the group, misidentified as KKO which is the DKBA – Benevolent, also surrendering because,

. . . they did not accept the attitudes of the Saw Hsan Aung [sic] splinter group

Although it is highly unlikely that the reason given for their surrender,

[they] wanted to live peacefully abandoning the armed line, that they had come to realise true attitudes of the government and Tatmadaw towards the indigenous people

Is accurate.

Either way, the inclusion of San Aung in the NA-B is unlikely to strengthen the NA-B’s bargaining power and only adds future complications when negotiating peace. Meanwhile, whether the other two groups under the DKBA-Buddhist banner, led by Kyaw Thet and  Bo Bi (aka Saw Taing Shwe) will join their colleague remains unclear.

 

Questionable Motives – Myanmar Security Operations in Rakhine State

51a89393-ec70-41af-bb76-85dd51674f9eOn 9 October, nine police officers were killed and five injured during coordinated ambushes in Maungdaw and Rethadaung Townships in Rakhine state, Myanmar. The night time attacks hit three Border Police posts on the border with Bangladesh. Police said the attackers were armed with knives and “ginkali”, a homemade slingshot that fires iron bolts. According to reports, they were able to steal more than 50 guns and 10,000 bullets from the border posts.[i] Speaking at a press conference the next day Police Maj-Gen Zaw Win, Chief of the Myanmar Police Force, said that the bodies of eight attackers were found. Two attackers were captured alive and one home-made pistol was seized along with two bullets and one cartridge of bullets.[ii]

It was unclear what organisation could mount such coordinated attacks, however, suspicion fell on the Muslim Rohingya, a long-persecuted minority that is dominant in the two townships. Shortly after the attacks, Maj-Gen Zaw Win was quoted as saying,

According to our force members who are working on this case, those who attacked and raided were shouting that they were Rohinghyas, [iii]

Meanwhile, Tin Maung Swe, a senior official within Rakhine’s state government, told AFP that those behind the ambushes were “RSO insurgents”, a reference to the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation.[iv]

The full paper can be downloaded here.

[i] ‘Nine Myanmar police killed in attack on Bangladesh border’, AFP, 10 October 2016

[ii] ‘Nine policemen killed, five injured, one missing in border attacks’, Myanmar News Agency, 10 October 2016

[iii] ‘Nine Myanmar police killed in attack on Bangladesh border’, AFP, 10 October 2016

[iv] Ibid.

Hardly a precedent – KNU postpones 16th Congress

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-1-30-24-pmNot unsurprisingly, the Karen National Union (KNU) decided on 10 November to postpone its 16th Congress until around March next year. Also not unsurprisingly, critics of the current leadership were quick to call foul.  They suggested that the decision was a nefarious attempt to maintain the current, and what they see as illegitimate, positions of Mutu Say Po and Kwe Htoo Win as leaders, whereas in actuality it just clearly made sense not to change negotiators during the current round of peace talks.

Much has been made about the decision which, according to The Irrawaddy, was taken because, ‘those in favour of postponing the congress were worried that electing new leaders—who do not have established relationships with the government and the Burma Army—would disrupt the peace process.’ For many, the decision is tantamount to treason, with at least one disgruntled individual asking the question ‘Anyone out there welling [sic] to chop Saw Mu Tu Say Poe and Kwe Htoo Win head?’

The KNU Congress is recognised as the KNU’s supreme legislative body and it is here that the Chairman, General Secretary, Joint Secretaries 1 and 2 and the Executive Committee (EC), the Central Standing Committees (CSC) and candidate members are elected. The seven KNU districts are responsible for electing the representatives, usually the District chairman and the Brigade commander, to attend the four yearly KNU congresses and two delegates are chosen to become members of the Central Committee. In addition, Central Committee members would provide the ministers for the Health, Education, Culture, Forestry, Mining and Finance.

Democracy loving critics of the KNU leadership seem to be blissfully, and perhaps intentionally, unaware of the fact that there were no congresses held from 1976, when Bo Mya came to power, until 1991.

In reality, under the leadership of Bo Mya, in the eighties and nineties, most political decisions were made by the 33 man Central Committee, or as often as not, the five-man committee of the president’s advisors (see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity). On many occasions, it would not be unusual for policy statements and changes to be made without any prior consultation at all.   As Smith notes, although congresses were supposed to take place there were none until 1991 resulting in Bo Mya appointing the members himself. These were normally a senior KNLA officer and political governor.

Of course, the main problem stems from as yet unsubstantiated allegations that the votes in the last congress were rigged (see ‘Changing the Guard – The Karen National Union, the 15th Congress, and the Future’) as I noted in this paper,

The 15 Congress was held from November 26 to December 26 and was attended by 171 KNU representatives from all Brigade areas. To control the election process a 7 person election committee was formed and led by the chief election commissioner Pastor Robert Htwe, head of the Karan Relief Centre (KRC). The election committee was responsible for designing and implementing the election process and for counting votes and announcing appointments.

After deliberation and various discussions on how the movement could best proceed in relation to its policies and future role, the 171 representatives voted to elect members to the Central Committee. After votes were counted the names of those elected were announced and the ballots burnt by the election committee. The voting for the Executive Committee leadership was much closer than expected with neither Zipporah Sein nor General Mutu receiving the necessary 51%. As a result, a new vote was called for. David Thackerbaw asked that the new vote be a secret ballot, a request that was refused.

After the second vote, General Mutu won be a clear majority and after the result was announced the ballots were again burnt. Both Major Hla Ngwe Joint Secretary – 1, and David Thackerbaw Vice-president, lost their positions during the election process. David Thackerbaw, dismissive of the results, later that day called for a recount; however, with the ballots burnt after the original results had been announced and with no support for such a move from any other of the attendees the results were upheld.[1]

No evidence has thus far been put forward that suggests any malfeasance on the part of Robert Htwe or those counting the ballot, a number of whom were from the Karen Women’s Organisation and the Karen Youth Organisation. In the absence of evidence, what remains is an unsubstantiated rumour that has consistently been used to cast aspersions on people within the current leadership.

As one would expect in relation to the current situation regarding the postponement of the congress, such critics are unlikely to be subdued by any result that does not fit into their own myopic view of the KNU’s current leadership.

 

[1] Personal Conversation with KNU EC Member, 6 January 2013. The burning of the votes and other issues relating to the election have caused some controversy see http://dictatorwatch.org/

Questionable Legitimacy

dkba-renegadesRecent Conflict in Karen State

In September 2016, over 4,000 Karen civilians were forced to flee their homes due to fighting between a breakaway Democratic Karen Benevolent Army faction and the Myanmar Army’s Border Guard Force (BGF) in the Mae Tha Waw area of Karen (Kayin) State. Fighting by the group, which has resurrected the name Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)[i] and has sworn allegiance to U Thuzana, the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw,[ii] has been characterised by a number of commentators as being nationalist in nature. However, the origins of the group, and their objectives, do not necessarily support such a hypothesis. Instead, it further illustrates the confusion over the perceived ethno-nationalist conflict of some Karen groups and those that are seeking to perpetuate their own existence at a cost to the local population.

Download here.

 

[i] Referred to here as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army – Kyaw Htet (DKBA-KH) to differentiate between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) which signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on 15 October 2015.

[ii] U Thuzana, or the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, was the patron of the original Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) when it split from the Karen National Union in December 1994.

CONTESTING TERRITORIES

The need for a balanced approach

uwsa-marchWith 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.

Download Background Paper No.4/16 here

DKBA-Kyaw Htet clashes with BGF

 

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Col. Saw San Aung (Photo Khin Muang Win)

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.