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

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.


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



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.

The 21st Century Panglong Conference


In what could usher in a significant moment in the country’s history, Myanmar is preparing for a Union Conference to be held shortly. On 24 April it was announced that the conference would take place within the next two months. The conference, also dubbed ‘The 21st Century Panglong (21CPC)’ is anticipated to be all-inclusive amongst Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) as long as certain factors are met. Ironically, this all-inclusive conference will exclude civil society actors and political parties that did not win seats in the 2015 elections. The announcement of the conference was welcomed by all sides including the eight Armed Ethnic Organisations that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on 15 October 2015 and those that either refused to sign it or were not invited. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was quick to point out that the Conference would be concurrent with the NCA and did not at this moment seek to replace it.

While comparisons to Panglong are inevitable with the 1947 Panglong meeting shaping the discourse of ethnic politics over the last sixty years, it is essential that a new thinking evolves to take into account the current situation. While it is important to remember that the Panglong Agreement was an essential foundation in what was hoped to be a genuine union the romanticised notion of Panglong should not be allowed to take over present realities facing the country. An essential difference between the two Panglongs is that the 1947 Panglong was a conference between equal, separate and distinct political entities – British Burma, Federated Shan States, Kachin Hills and Chin Hills – to agree to cooperate to form a new nation and seek independence from Britain, while the proposed 21CPC is a unilateral proposal by the central government to permanently end the 7-decades of internal conflict. The 1947 Conference can be described as a state-to-state conference, while the 21 CPC is a state-to-individual non-state ethnic armed organisation conference.

Aung San Suu Kyi seems intent on inheriting her father’s legacy but who actually controls the process and the true role ethnic actors will be allowed to play needs further consideration.

My latest EBO background paper is available here.

The UWSA and the future

Major concerns for Shan State and the NLD-led Government


From 26-28 March 2016, the United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA) hosted an Ethnic Armed Organizations leaders’ Summit at its headquarters in Panghsang, Wa Special Region. Present at the meeting were representatives from the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA), the Kachin based United League for Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA).

While ostensibly organised by the UWSA to discuss the negotiating position of those groups present that did not sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on 15 October, in reality, a major focus of attention was the continuing conflict between the TNLA and the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), better known as the SSA-South. Conflict between the two groups erupted in Shan State on 27 November 2015 in Namhkam and Mantong townships, near the China border. Reports from the Ta’ang claim that members of the SSA-S had crossed into their areas, which they designate as Kyaukme, Namhsan, Mantong and Namkham townships, without seeking ‘permission’ a claim the RCSS has denied (See EBO Background Paper No.6 – A Disturbing Portent – Inter-ethnic tensions and the peace process).

While there is little doubt that a main area of discussion at the meeting was focussed on how to work with the new government, the summit also elevated the inclusion of the UWSA in the peace process. The UWSA had, over the years, attempted to move away from ethnic politics in relation to armed ethnic groups frequently claiming it already has an agreement it is happy with. After being told that if they did not sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) they would not be granted an autonomous state, a senior UWSA official apparently replied,

We have made a statement that we will not sign the NCA, because throughout the past 25 years there was no fighting between us . . . We have been staying in peace. There is no point in signing the NCA.

However, over the last couple of years, with fissures in the ethnic alliance United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), political dialogue in January 2016, and the inauguration of the new government, it has recalibrated its position and appears now to be seeking a much greater role among those ethnic organisations that have yet to sign a ceasefire agreement.

The full paper is available here