Sunday, July 5, 2009

Victory over KNU, new order on Thai-Burma border

by Brian McCartan

Mae Sot, Thailand (Mizzima) - The victory of the Burmese Army and its proxy, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), in attacks on bases of the Karen National Union (KNU) last month, puts the regime in firm control of a major portion of its border with Thailand for the first time in 60 years. Success brings with it a whole new order of forces along the border.

Burmese and DKBA forces took the border camps of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, after a month-long battle in June. The fighting was relatively light with many of the 200 Burmese and DKBA casualties the result of landmines. Fighting, the threat of landmines and fear of being taken as porters by the attackers resulted in over 3,500 Karen villagers fleeing their homes to take refuge on the Thai side of the border.

The Burmese regime and the DKBA have big plans for the border now that it is under their control. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has long aimed to establish several economic zones along the stretch of the border from Myawaddy north to the confluence of the Salween and Moei Rivers. One of these special economic zones is slated for construction on the outskirts of Myawaddy and another to the east of the township capital of Hlaing Bwe.

Past Thai governments have given their verbal support for these plans, although little money has of yet been put into them. Now that the area is in firmer control and the threat from the KNLA reduced, the economic zone plans may be dusted off again. Burma hopes to entice Thai investment and develop an otherwise economically poor area, while Thailand sees the economic zones as a way of using cheap Burmese labour without having to deal with a large influx of migrant workers. At one point, the area around Hlaing Bwe was also seen as a potential repatriation point for Karen refugees in the Mae La refugee camp.

A component of the DKBA’s acceptance of the junta’s border guard programme is that the DKBA will be allowed to keep, and possibly even expand, its economic activities. Although details of the concessions are still unclear, notes from internal DKBA meetings in May and June seen by Mizzima, indicate that the DKBA is moving some of its tax gates and setting up new units as a part of a major expansion. Certain officers, including Colonel Maw Tho who is already heavily involved in legal and black market trade with Thailand from his base in Myawaddy, will be reassigned to specifically economic activities.

A greatly expanded DKBA taking control of a large portion of the border is likely to make Thai security officials nervous. Following the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw in January 1995, DKBA troops carried out a reign of terror along the border, burning refugee camps, kidnapping and sometimes killing Karen and Thai civilians, looting Thai shops along the border and even attacking Thai army and police forces. Although the attacks largely stopped in 1998, occasional incursions have taken place since.

This year DKBA incursions increased as it made itself felt along the border. In January 2009, DKBA troops burned down field huts, stole livestock and looted houses along the border in Umphang district of Tak province. During and immediately following the recent attacks on the KNLA’s 7th Brigade, Karen sources say DKBA troops crossed the border several times to demand rations for their troops and to eat and drink in local shops around Mae Salit.

An ambush on June 26 on the Moei River that killed five DKBA soldiers including Colonel San Pyone and wounded another 20 has many Karen worried about possible retaliatory attacks. San Pyone is widely believed to have been the leader and triggerman in the assassination of KNU General Secretary Mahn Sha La Phan on Valentine’s Day last year. The KNLA military officers claim it was not a revenge attack because they have no troops in the area. This leaves open the possibility of involvement of the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, another splinter Karen group, the SPDC or Thai security forces. Whoever carried out the attack, the incident shows that despite greater DKBA and government control, stability is far from assured.

The transformation of the DKBA into a border guard under the central command of the Burmese Army may bring some stability, even if it costs the regime a scapegoat for cross-border incursions. The SPDC has been careful in the past to blame all cross-border attacks on the DKBA and say that it has very little influence on the group’s actions. Recent fighting against the KNLA’s 7th Brigade was described in the state-run media as Karen-on-Karen fighting. With the DKBA’s transformation into a border guard force within the Burmese Army, this pretext will no longer be possible.

One area Thai security forces will be keen to keep a watch on is the effect greater territorial control and legitimization as a unit of the Burmese military will have on the DKBA’s drug trafficking activities. Karen military sources allege the DKBA operates several amphetamine, or yaba, laboratories in areas near the border. While DKBA production and trafficking activities are not at the same level as groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Shan State, Thai narcotics officials and opposition sources say the DKBA moves both yaba and heroin through its border camps near Myawaddy and Three Pagodas Pass. The group’s transformation into a border guard unit would make the military regime directly complicit in any continued drug activities.

Recent media reports describing the KNU as all but finished following the loss of its border camps last month are rather premature. KNLA sources say that they intend to continue to operate as guerrilla units in north central Karen State. The loss of the central border region, however, will make it harder for the KNU to communicate and supply its units as well as arrange supplies for villagers and internally displaced villagers that it cares for. The KNLA still has the bulk of its forces in northern Karen State as wells as in parts of Pegu Division and Mon State as well as maintains forces in areas of southern Karen State and Tenasserim Division.

Within Karen State itself, firmer control by the DKBA and Burmese government means that many Karen who still sympathize with the aims of the KNU will now be forced to work with the new rulers. Human rights monitors in the area for several years have said the greater DKBA presence has made their work much more dangerous. DKBA threats of retribution have made many villagers afraid to speak out about abuses.

A KNU source says that greater DKBA control will have little effect on Karen representation in the 2010 elections. The DKBA is different from other ethnic insurgent groups in that it has no political wing. Minutes of a May 7 meeting of DKBA commanders indicate that the DKBA has been told they may participate in politics, but in order to do so, DKBA members, or any other Karen, must either form a new political party or contest the election as an individual. KNU source, however, say it is irrelevant since the SPDC has already decided who the winning candidates are.

The KNU’s position in central Karen State has certainly been greatly weakened by the loss of its border camps last month. Whether firmer government and DKBA control of the area will translate into greater peace and development for the local population is far from clear. Fighting with the KNU in this area may be almost over, but new border tensions may only be beginning.

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