Monday, March 30, 2009

Ethnic Karen armed group announces new, official presence in Three Pagodas Pass

By Mon Son and Blai Mon, IMNA

An ethnic Karen armed group has opened a new office in Three Pagodas Pass. The new presence in the border town follows reports that the group would be given control of territory for a new “economic development zone” after agreeing to turn its soldiers into a border guard force for the Burmese army.

Yesterday morning, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council (KPC) formally opened an office at a meeting with other armed ceasefire groups and officials from the Burmese government. The meeting, held at an office announced as the “KPC Communications Office” on a signboard outside, began at 8am and ended before lunch.

Prior to opening the office, the KPC had no official presence in Three Pagodas Pass. How the opening of the office was related to recent reports of the economic zone and border force agreement could not be confirmed; IMNA could obtain no comment from the KPC.

Details of the economic zone have also remained sketchy. Last month, sources in Three Pagodas reported to IMNA that the group had been granted 100 acres adjacent to territory officially controlled by the New Mon State Party (NMSP) since the Mon group agreed to a ceasefire in 1995. The agreement followed reports published by the Irrawaddy that the KPC would act as government controlled border guards.

The KPC said that their new office will be for economic activities, said a source at the meeting. No mentions of the levying of taxes or creation of KPC border guards were made, added the source.

Three other ethnic cease-fire groups operate with official sanction in the Three Pagodas area, raising questions about how the new KPC will fit into the existing order. Representatives of the groups, known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Karen Peace Front (KPF) and the NMSP all attended the meeting, along with officials from the Three Pagodas Pass Township Peace and Development Council and the Sa Ya Pa Military Intelligence.

The DKBA and the KPF collect taxes inside Three Pagodas Pass Town, while both groups plus the NMSP and Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) – which has yet to agree to a ceasefire – operate checkpoints and tolls along area travel routes. The NMSP, too, has officially controlled territory near Three Pagodas Pass since agreeing to a ceasefire in 1995.

The DKBA, KPF and KPC were all formed after splitting from the KNU/KNLA in 1994, 1997 and 2007 respectively; the KNU/KNLA continues an armed insurgency began at the dawn of Burma’s independence in 1948.

“The KPC opening a new office will not make a problem,” said a source in the KPF. “The KPC will also have a chance to do their own economic activities in Three Pagodas Pass. The NMSP, KPC, KPF and DKBA will all do their own projects too – there does not need to be conflict.”

Three Pagodas Pass residents are less sanguine, at least about the prospects of paying taxes to group on top of already steep demands by government and cease-fire groups alike. “If they open an office, they will open a checkpoint later. It is sure,” a truck owner who makes his living transporting goods to and from Three Pagodas Pass told IMNA. “And we will have to pay more taxes than before.”

“The KPC does not only want to open an office and do business,” said another resident. “They also want to extend their area.”

Space for operation of new groups was not so freely abundant just 6 months ago, however, when the KPC was unable to get permission to set up a road checkpoint to tax travel about 50 miles away near Kya-inn-seik-kyi, Karen State. “We can’t allow the council to set up a checkpoint. There are already too many groups operating in the area,” IMNA quoted a government military source in Three Pagodas Pass during the first week of October. “The peace council delegation already left Three Pagoda Pass, and will retreat from the Kya-inn-seik-kyi area.”

There have also been rumors in Three Pagodas that the KPC has been struggling to finalize its special economic zone, for which there has been no official announcement.

Earlier this month, a source in the KPF told IMNA that the KPC delegation that traveled to Moulmein to obtain official permission for the economic zone was refused on the grounds that the government does not control the territory in question. A source in the NMSP next door, however, maintains that the land is in fact government controlled.

Rumors about the location of the proposed zone continue, with sources in Three Pagodas Pass saying it is now to be near Taung Wine quarter, just outside of Three Pagodas Pass Town. In February, a KPC officer had told IMNA that the group had been granted the “full amount” of what it wanted, including the territory adjacent to the NMSP.

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