Beginning of the End of Peace?
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Beginning of the End of Peace?


DKBA troops on parade at a Karen New Year’s ceremony in December 2006. (Phto: The Irrawaddy)

On Nov. 7, the day Burma was to hold its first general election in 20 years, Capt Thet Naing of the Burmese Military Operations Command based in Tavoy arrived in Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border to meet with the leaders of breakaway Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). His purported mission was to negotiate with Brigade 5 and convince them not to initiate any armed clashes while the polls were open.

However, while Thet Naing was meeting with the Brigade 5 representatives near the Friendship Bridge connecting Myawaddy with Mae Sot, Thailand, his own troops opened fire, literally trapping him in the arms of the renegade militia.

Refugees flee to safety in Thailand following clashes between DKBA and Burmese regime troops in November. (Phto: The Irrawaddy)
Brigade 5 immediately seized Thet Naing and then took control of several government buildings in Myawaddy. Serious clashes broke out between government forces and DKBA troops in the town the following day and later at Three Pagodas Pass, about 100 kilometers to the south.

Within 24 hours, 20,000 refugees had streamed across the border to Thailand, and observers began speculating that the election-day shots fired by government troops toward the Friendship Bridge in Myawaddy may have marked the beginning of the end of a series of cease-fire agreements between the military regime and more than a dozen of Burma’s armed ethnic militias who have refused to join the junta’s border guard force (BGF).    

The BGF is part of the the junta’s strategy to create one armed force as required by the 2008 Constitution. Once the armed ethnic groups transform into members of the BGF, they will be trained in the Burmese language, provided a salary by the regime, have their military badges replaced with BGF insignia and, most importantly, be under Burmese military command. Most armed ethnic groups opposing the BGF said they rejected the plan because they will lose both their weapons and the ability to command their own troops. 

While tension between the government and the armed ethnic groups has mounted steadily since the junta introduced the BGF plan in April 2009, it seemed to spike in the run-up to the election as the junta attempted to use the polls as leverage to force acceptance of the plan.

Thus far, however, the DKBA (other than Brigade 5) is the only significant armed ethnic group to join the BGF. The strongest ethnic militias—such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 30,000 troops, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with an estimated 10,000 troops—have rejected the plan. And the generals seem to be chafing at their inability to muscle the ethnic militias into accepting their “proposal.”

Observers have been watching to see how the junta will handle the intransigent militias after the election. It now appears that the regime’s initial post-election strategy is not to take on the strongest militias first, but rather to tie up the DKBA Brigade 5 loose-end, selectively choose smaller battles they think they can win and put non-military pressure on other ethnic militias.

Left: Col. Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of the DKBA’s breakaway Brigade 5
Right: UWSA troops at the group’s headquarters in Panghsang, Shan State (Photo: Alex Ellgee/the irrawaddy)
Col. Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of Brigade 5, said the regime told him that his troops must leave their controlled areas in southern Karen State if they did not agree to join the BGF.

“They told us they will shoot us if we don’t leave our area,” said Saw Lah Pwe. “We told them this is our Karen land. There is no way we will leave.”

In early November, a series of clashes broke out in Mong Hsnu Township in southern Shan State between government troops and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), another cease-fire group that rejected the BGF proposal.

“Fifty soldiers from the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] snuck up and attacked us,” said an SSA-North Brigade 1 official who requested anonymity.

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