The Karen National Union (KNU), alongside the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), were instrumental in encouraging a number of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) to sign Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on 15 October 2015. It was the actions of these two groups and the positions they have held within the armed ethnic resistance movement that allowed for the peace process, no matter how flawed it may be, to move forward.
That said, however, despite their support for the process and the current government’s efforts, through the Union Peace Conference, to secure a more permanent peace, both groups have found themselves attacked by the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. While such skirmishes were expected initially due to little official demarcation of territory and a lack of conflict solving mechanisms,[i] one and a half years later it would appear the Myanmar military is selectively applying the NCA in areas where it operates.
Most recently the Tatmadaw has attempted to exert its influence further into the KNU controlled 5th Brigade area of Mutraw (Papun) resulting in human rights abuses, displacement and the unlawful killing of a local environmental activist.
[i] According to Saw Mu Heh, KNU 5th Brigade Commander, the 5th Brigade had told the Army where Myanmar Army troops could operate. See the video ‘The Nightmare Returns: Karen hopes for peace and stability dashed by Burma Army’s actions’, KPSN, April 2018
It is probably not that surprising that the Arakan Army has finally decided to confront the Arakan Liberation Party and its armed wing the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) in Rakhine State. While the Arakan Army is based in Kachin State, for some years now it has infiltrated areas of both Arakan and Chin State and now maintains a presence there.
According to media reports by the Irrawaddy and Myanmar Times, nearly 70 soldiers from the Arakan Army (AA) raided a front line post belonging to the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) in Chin State’s Paletwa Township, Chin State on Tuesday.
A statement by the group released on Wednesday said that two ALA soldiers were killed in the attack, three were “severely” wounded, and two more were missing. According to U Khine Aung So Than, the ALA unit in the camp had just 20 soldiers, and they withdrew from the base as AA soldiers surrounded them and began the assault.
According to the Irrawaddy article, on May 4, the AA had issued a “warning letter” written in the Arakanese language on its official Facebook page, alleging that 30 soldiers from the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) had posed as AA soldiers and extorted money from locals near the Bangladeshi border. Moreover, the AA accused troops from the same group of pretending to be Myanmar Army soldiers and collecting “protection money” from residents of Garam Pa village in early May.
Such pretence is unlikely to have occurred, however, because all armed groups in the area tend to extort the local population, and unfortunately, it is more than likely that the local population have just become used to it.
Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that the attack took place in Chin State’s Paletwa.
There has been a long-running territorial dispute over Paletwa, which is claimed by both the Chin and the Rakhine. During the colonial period, Paletwa was designated as being in Rakhine State. However, during the U Nu administration, the town was reclassified as being in Chin State. The issue remains somewhat contentious. The majority of the population are Khumi Chin, and there was a major demonstration when the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) announced it was going to open a Liaison Office in the town as part of a ceasefire agreement with the Government. Both the ALP and Rakhine state government delegations agreed to set up a liaison office for the ALP in Paletwa during the first week of April 2012 in a move that was criticised by the local community.
According to one government employee:
We could accept it if they were a Chin political party. It is not acceptable for us to allow them to set up their office in Paletwa. It is not their territory. The authorities should have consulted the Chin State government before making a decision on this issue,
A local village head also stated that:
The central authorities ought to have consulted local people about this issue. We are not Arakanese. We cannot accept any other national armed group in our area. The Burmese government should have consulted local Khumi people before signing an agreement,
Salai Ceu Bik Thawng, General Secretary of the Chin National Party (CNP) echoed such concerns:
I am worried that there will be clashes between Chin and Rakhine people over this issue because it is very sensitive. This problem will not be solved by democratic means and a federal system but will lead to racial problems.
Because of such protests, the office remains unopened.
A number of Chin leaders have suggested that the Chin National Front has made it clear to the Arakan Army that should Chin civilians suffer due to Arakan Army operations then the CNF’s armed wing the Chin National Army may have little recourse other than to engage them.
According to the Myanmar Times report, ALP leader Daw Mra Raza Lin said that she felt like the ALP had failed to keep unity among the two Rakhine groups.
“It is a fight between two Rakhine groups. I felt like my organisation had failed for the first time during my term (to keep unity among our people),” she said.
That said, it is unlikely that this is a failure of the ALP to maintain unity. Rather it more likely that the Arakan Army is seeking to replace the NCA signatory ALP and further strengthen its position. The Arakan Army has seen its position bolstered by its involvement with the Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) consisting of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) previously known as the Northern Alliance – Burma.
Although a signatory to the NCA, the ALP has seen its position in ethnic politics consistently weakened. The organisation was originally formed in 1968 by Khaing Pray Thein. However, the Burmese regime moved quickly to quash the movement and arrested many of its leaders jailing them for two to three years. After being granted an amnesty in the early 1970s, ALP President Khaing Moe Linn and Vice Chairman Khaing Ba Kyaw re-formed the ALP with support from the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNLA trained and armed as many as 300 ALA soldiers, and it soon became a leading member of the National Democratic Front (NDF) after it was created in 1976. The ALP/ALA was reorganised in 1981 under the leadership of Khai Ray Khai, with the goal of establishing a sovereign state in Rakhine State.
The Arakan Liberation Army (ALA), prior to the NCA, mainly operated as a mobile force in the southern Chin Hills or northern Arakan Hills and has been known to be active in the interior of Arakan State including Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships. Currently, the Arakan Liberation Army is estimated to have between 100 -150 troops and is equipped with light weapons.
While the threat to the ALP is particularly serious, such events must cause some trepidation within the Chin National Front. Unless the Myanmar Army is prepared to come to their aid, it is likely that both groups could see their control over their territory severely curtailed in the not too distant future further derailing the country’s peace process.
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.
My new Background Paper for the Euro Burma Office is now available via their website here.
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K)
On 4 June 2015, a coalition of separatist rebels ambushed a convoy of Indian troops, from the sixth Dogra Regiment, in the country’s northeastern state of Manipur killing at least 18 soldiers and seriously injuring twelve others.
The soldiers were on patrol when they came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, and machine guns. The attack marks a further escalation of the conflict against the Indian army in the country’s northeast. Indian intelligence stated it suspected the involvement of the Myanmar based National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) and the United National Liberation Front, a Manipuri rebel group, in the joint attack. Shortly after, a press release from the NSCN-K stated that an elite unit of its guerrillas and those from its Manipuri allies, KYKL and KCP, had carried out the attack to uphold the cause of their sovereignty.
San Byote (aka Soe Myint) the DKBA commander who led the recent attack on Leh Per Her IDP camp and was a suspect in the assassination of KNU General Secretary Padoh Mahn Laphan was killed in a KNLA ambush yesterday evening (26 June 2009). The attack happened as San Pyote and a number of porters were travelling in two boats on the Moei river. While details are sketchy it is believed that five DKBA soldiers and two porters also died. Twenty others are believed injured, eight seriously.
The State Peace and Development Council’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has issued a, somewhat factually-challenged, statement claiming that the recent EU Presidency Declaration on Karen Civilians fleeing fighting shows ‘total ignorance.
The EU declaration, issued on the 11th of June, calls for ‘… an immediate ceasefire and requests the authorities and military operators to ensure the protection of civilians at all times and to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law.’
The MOFA statement, printed in Sunday’s New Light of Myanmar, claims that the Internally Displaced Peopled, who have had to flee the IDP Camp at Leh Per Her to Thailand, are ‘…none other than members of KNU/KNLA and their families.’ The statement also incorrectly states that the Karen National Union is the last remaining armed group fighting against the Naypyitaw government ignoring both the Shan State Army – South and the Karenni National Progressive Party among others.
As is often the case, the government has tried to deflect criticism from its own systematic abuses and use of force against Burma’s minority peoples by claiming it to be an internal Karen problem. According to the statement the recent fighting was caused by the KNLA preventing followers of Nay Soe Mya, who surrendered in March, from joining him. It also claims that the Burma Army has had no involvement in the attacks despite evidence to the contrary that it is the Burmese Army, not the DKBA, that shelled the IDP camp prior to the exodus.
Not since May 2006, after the SPDC launched its offensive in Northern Karen State, have such patently ridiculous, and often contradictory, lies been trotted out by the government. The 2006 offensive, which is still ongoing, against KNU 2nd and 3rd Brigades, has resulted in the displacement of over 20,000 civilians and the relocation of thousands more. According to the Information Minister, Kyaw San, the reason for the offensive was the fact that the KNU commander was prejudiced against the Bwe/Geba Karens and favoured the Paku. (New Light of Myanmar, 15 May, 2006). Apparently, racial injustice can’t be tolerated when it’s purportedly practiced by the Karen, but for the SPDC, racism is not only allowed but encouraged.
One would have assumed, given so much practice at fooling its own people, if not itself, that the regime would have gotten better at lying. Unfortunately, I doubt the Generals care whether their lies are believable or not, no action is going to be taken against them anyway.
It is interesting to note that the first country Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has chosen to visit since brutally quashing the Tamil Tiger rebellion is Burma. Over 20,000 civilian were estimated killed as the Sri Lankan military sought to wipe out the last vestiges of the Tamil independence movement. While there is little doubt that both sides acted in defiance of humanitarian norms, in relation to the civilian population the government still bears great responsibilty for the large number of civilians killed.
It must be pointed out that the Sri Lankan President will be visiting Burma at the height of another SPDC offensive against the ethnic Karen in the eastern borderlands of the country. One can only assume the main topic of conversation will be how best to eradicate or subjugate the various minorities in their respective homelands. Now that the Sri Lankan military has started mopping up operations against the Tamil minority it’s reasonable to be believe that the Burmese generals can give handy hints on the best methods of relocating and pacifying minority peoples based on their 40 odd years of experience.
Reports have already begun to surface that a large scale operation involving the detention of all Tamil civilians, regardless of connection to the conflict, has begun. A number of camps, supported by the U.N., currently hold over 100,000 civilians in the most appalling circumstances. According to a Channel 4 documentary
‘claims have emerged of shortages of food and water, dead bodies left where they have fallen, women separated from their families, and even sexual abuse.’
The Generals must be extremely encouraged that a country like Sri Lanka can be so easily allowed to massacre and imprison it own civilians with little or know censure. The UN has proved one again that it is ineffective and as such can not really be relied on to assist those most at risk. For its part, Burma donated $50,000 to Sri Lanka, on the 11th June, as …’humanitarian assistance…which will be utilized for the welfare activities of the IDPs in the North.’ according to Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Burma, Newton Gunaratna who also called the country a ‘Friend indeed’. Where the SPDC money is for the 4000 Karen civilians forced to flee an IDP camp in the east of Burma after it was shelled by the Burma Army remains a mystery.
Meanwhile a recent report, while emphasizing the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the LTTE, also accuses the Sri Lankan military of “the most depraved depths of humanity” after it was discovered that the Army had deliberately massacred surrendering rebels.
I’m sure both countries will be very happy in their friendship.