The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Mr. Beard Breaks Away

Col. Saw Lah Pwe has led a major defection of DKBA troops, and now the remaining DKBA leaders must make a choice between their business interests and their fellow Karen

Col. Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), led a late-July defection of as many as 1,500 troops from five DKBA battalions that will potentially join forces with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

On Aug. 5, Saw Lah Pwe met with The Irrawaddy. He said that fighting with the Burmese military was expected within 48 hours and clashes had already occurred. If the junta attacks, he will fight with the KNLA and other Karen armed groups, but will still fight as a DKBA soldier.

“I am a DKBA soldier and will fight for my people,” he said. “Even if they tell me to give them my weapons and badge, I will never hand them over—that would be like taking our bones and just leaving flesh.”

Col.Saw Lha Pwe, the commander of breakaway DKBA Brigade 5, is known as Mr.Beard (Photo:ALEX ELLGEE /THE IRRAWADDY)
In an emergency meeting between the DKBA and leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU), the KNLA’s parent political organization, it was agreed that if junta forces attack the breakaway DKBA troops, then KNLA troops would support them.

Saw Lah Pwe is believed to have persuaded his troops to split with the DKBA due to a dispute about whether to join the Burmese military regime’s border guard force (BGF). The BGF, which would require all armed ethnic cease-fire groups to come under the junta’s military umbrella, was first proposed by the regime in April 2009, and it has set an Aug. 10 deadline for the DKBA to accept the plan.

A stalwart opponent of the BGF since its inception, Saw Lah Pwe on July 21 rejected an offer by Lt-Gen Ye Myint, the regime’s chief of Military Affairs Security, to meet and discuss the plan.

The DKBA is different from the other armed ethnic groups being pressured to join the BGF. Since its Buddhist leaders broke away from the predominantly Christian KNLA in 1994 and formed their competing armed group, the DKBA has acted as a proxy militia for the Burmese military and has been engaged in an ongoing battle with the KNLA. The DKBA claims to have 6,000 troops and plans to enlarge its army to 9,000, which would make it Burma’s second largest non-state armed group. 

The question now is whether the rest of the DKBA will cave in to the junta and join the BGF, which will almost inevitably lead to continued armed conflict with their Karen brethren in the KNLA, or refuse to join the BGF and pursue a more compatible relationship with the KNU and KNLA—possibly even signing an official cease-fire agreement, which will almost inevitably lead to armed conflict with the Burmese military.

Prior to April of last year, the DKBA was able to straddle the line—receiving the protection of Burma’s military regime while not officially being part of the junta and still exercising a high degree of independence. But when Naypyidaw concocted the idea of the BGF and pressured the DKBA to become its flagship member, the regime forced the breakaway Karen militia to decide which side of the line it is on. Since then, the DKBA leadership has been frozen in place, uncertain of which direction to turn.

Although the DKBA agreed to join the BGF when it was first proposed, it later backed away from its agreement, reportedly after influential Buddhist monk and DKBA co-founder U Thuzana became incensed upon learning about the DKBA’s willingness to place itself directly under junta command. Since that time, the DKBA has resisted regime pressure to join the BGF, as have most other armed ethnic cease-fire groups.

Most likely, Naypyidaw had hoped that the DKBA would be the easiest to convince of all armed ethnic groups, and that once it was on board the BGF then other groups would follow. The opposite, however, has happened. And with even the DKBA resisting the BGF, other armed ethnic groups may have been emboldened to do so as well.

The stakes for the junta are high, and it has pressured the DKBA to join the BGF to the point of threatening military action if it doesn’t capitulate. If the junta attempts to take control—by force or otherwise—of DKBA territory, some top-level DKBA leaders stand to lose a lot. Chief among them is Col Chit Thu, the commander of DKBA Battalion 999 and the most powerful DKBA military leader.

Within the DKBA’s fiefdom along the Thai-Burmese border, Chit Thu and his cronies have built a business empire in logging, automobiles and minerals such as zinc and tin, mostly based in the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, which has a trade link with the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Border sources say that most DKBA leaders such as Chit Thu are not interested in politics, only in business, and until recently Chit Thu has been ruthless in his willingness to do the regime’s bidding and create space for his budding business empire, even at the expense of his own Karen people. Many Karen sources said that the attacks on KNLA Brigade 7 in June 2009, which displaced 4,000 Karen villagers, were planned by Chit Thu with the aim of opening an area to build an “economic zone” after the battle was won.

Col.Chit Thu salutes DKBA troops on the parade ground.(Photo:SHAH PAUNG /THE IRRAWADDY)
So it’s not surprising that Chit Thu has reportedly been the DKBA’s most vocal advocate for joining the BGF—stable relations with the regime are obviously good for business—and sources said that both Chit Thu and Gen Kyaw Than, the DKBA commander-in-chief who also has a substantial interest in cross-border trade, will most likely join the BGF and bring DKBA Brigades 7 and 9 along with them.

But there is stiff resistance to joining the BGF within the DKBA. The opposition is led by U Thuzana, who according to some observers is as powerful and influential as Chit Thu. He told DKBA leaders to keep their organization’s name and not to accept the Burmese junta’s BGF plan, said a DKBA member.

“They [the DKBA] told me the day the government changes the name of the DKBA would be the day they will start to fight the regime,” said a Karen businessman.

Another Karen source close to the DKBA in Myawaddy Township said: “The majority of DKBA members don’t want to lose the name of their organization. They are worried that without the DKBA name, there will be no political objective and no hope for a better future for ethnic Karen. This is why they don’t want to transform their troops into part of the BGF.”

The possibility of coming under direct control of the Burmese regime is also being rebuffed by many mid- and lower-level DKBA members. Karen sources said several DKBA units disagree with their leadership and do not want to join a force that will be dominated by Burmese military commanders.

Saw Hsar Paw, a former DKBA soldier who defected, said, “Joining the border guard force is not only surrendering our weapons, but also our fighters. We would automatically become part of the Burmese armed forces when we obey the order.”

A DKBA officer at the Three Pagodas Pass told The Irrawaddy: “We will never betray our Karen people. We will keep our arms following our leader Saw Ba U Gyi’s principles, and we will fight for the freedom of our Karen people.”

Despite its long-running dispute and bitter battles with the KNLA, there is also growing resistance inside the DKBA to taking up arms against fellow Karen. Observers have said that the Burmese junta’s pressure on the DKBA to transform into part of the BGF may push the DKBA to settle its differences and join forces with the KNU.

Saw Lah Pwe told The Irrawaddy that if war does break out, two-thirds of the DKBA will return to the insurgency. “Chit Thu and Kyaw Than will be forced to flee the country,” he said.

Possibly hedging his bets, even Chit Thu has begun making overtures to his fellow Karen, although not directly to the KNU. At a June 26 ceremony organized to pay respects to DKBA soldiers who died in battles between the DKBA and KNU, Chit Thu said, “I am unhappy to see that my Karen soldiers are getting killed during battles between Karen and Karen,” according to a source who attended the ceremony. Chit Thu then vowed in front of 10,000 people: “I will stop fighting my fellow Karen.”

U Mahn, a Karen guest speaker at the event, said, “Our people will only die if we continue to fight against each other. Nobody will come and help us,” he said. “It is time for us to stop killing each other and be united.”  

In response to Chit Thu’s statement, KNU General Secretary Zipporah Sein said that she welcomes the DKBA statement if it was really true. “If they [DKBA] don’t attack us and Karen villagers, if they don’t obey the regime’s order, that is fine even though they live in luxury from doing business and entering into a cease-fire with the regime,” she said. “But, we don’t know how much they can resist the regime as they are under the regime’s control.”  

Since October 2009, some DKBA members have reportedly been engaged in attempts to make peace with the KNU. There have been several meetings between members of the two groups, reportedly to discuss an official cease-fire. And the lack of fighting since last year has led some observers to speculate that an unofficial cease-fire already exists.

The most recent round of secret peace talks was held in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand, in June, according to sources close to the KNU. Speaking to The Irrawaddy, a KNU source in the Three Pagodas Pass area said, “The peace talks were held from June 17 to 23 in Kanchanaburi. Three leaders from the DKBA and two from the KNU took part.”

The three DKBA leaders reportedly were U Thuzana, Saw Lah Pwe and Saw Naw Tayar, a military official. The two KNU leaders were Gen Mu Tu, the commander-in-chief of the KNLA, and a KNU military officer known as Oliver.

Anticipating an attack by government forces after he and his Brigade 5 broke away from the DKBA, Saw Lah Pwe points out junta military posts.(Photo:ALEX ELLGEE /THE IRRAWADDY)
The outcome of the June discussions is unclear, and the parties involved have not commented. David Takapaw, the KNU deputy chairman, told The Irrawaddy that he had no information about the talks. He said that the KNU district administration may have initiated the talks, and they did not have to report to headquarters until a substantive agreement had been achieved.

The haze surrounding the DKBA-KNU relationship has existed since Oct. 19, 2009, when the first significant talks between the DKBA and the KNU since late 1994 took place. At the time, the Karen news organization Kwekalu quoted Aung Maung as saying that U Thuzana brought with him a document and an inkpad to mark thumbprints to confirm a cease-fire agreement between the KNU and DKBA. The KNU delegation didn’t sign it because they did not think the monk represented the entire DKBA, but agreed to further talks.

For the KNU’s part, they appear to have little to lose by pursuing a cease-fire, or even a peace agreement, with the DKBA. But observers say they have to be careful that whatever is negotiated is a legitimate deal and not a secret ploy.

After a peace deal apparently struck at the end of April  did not materialize, a KNLA source in southern Karen state said: “It appears the DKBA have gone back to their old ways. It’s very difficult to trust them 100 percent when they are still working for the junta, but we can see a part of them wants to leave the DKBA.”

The regime may swerve once again and delay the BGF deadline until after the elections. But a time will come when the DKBA leadership will be forced to choose between officially joining the Burmese regime or reuniting with their Karen brethren. If the DKBA does join the BGF, it may end up battling many of its own former members, including Mr. Beard, who have switched sides to join forces with the KNLA.  

Irrawaddy reporters Alex Ellgee and Lawi Weng contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |