Monday, August 17, 2009

Villagers Fear September Offensive

The Irrawaddy News

EI TU HTA—After overrunning the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 7 headquarters in southern Karen State, a joint Burmese army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) force plans to resume its offensive in northern Karen State in September, and take over the remaining KNLA bases along the Thai-Burmese border.

The targeted areas are KNLA Brigade 5 and KNLA military bases along the Salween River on the border with northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province.

KNLA Brigade 5 troops prepare to resist the joint Burmese DKBA offensive. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/ The Irrawaddy)

The Commander of KNLA Brigade 5, Baw Kyaw, said his soldiers will defend the area and its villages to the best of their ability. He expects the offensive will come soon.

“If the DKBA follows the orders of the Burmese army, they are our enemy,” Baw Kyaw told The Irrawaddy in a KNLA controlled area on the border. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen National Union.

Many Karen villagers in Papun District in northern Karen State and along the Salween River on the Thai-Burmese border are on alert against the joint Burmese and DKBA force, Karen villagers at the border said.

If the offensive succeeds, thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northern Karen State and more than 4,000 Karen refugees in Ei Tu Hta, a temporary camp on the Salween River, will be forced to flee to Thai soil, Karen sources said.

Wah Eh Htoo, secretary of Ei Tu Hta refugee camp told The Irrawaddy: “Villagers fear the DKBA plan to take over the border.”

Ei Htu Ta camp is located on the Burmese bank of the Salween River in Karen State.

“We told the refugees to pack their pots and plates after meals and be ready to flee with other belongings at any time,” said Wah Eh Htoo.

Due to Burmese attacks, about 10,000 IDPs are currently hiding in the jungle in Nyaunglebin District in Pegu Division and Luthaw Township in Papun District, northern Karen state, said local villagers and relief groups who met with The Irrawaddy at the border on August 12.

Saw T’kwel, leader of Ei Tu Hta’s zone 6 said if the camp is attacked, the villagers will face problems getting food supplies, medical care and education for their children.

The IDPs dare not return home and fear that if they flee to Thailand, the Thai authorities will not permit them to stay long, he said.

“We live in fear of being caught on the battlefield,” Saw T’kwel said. “The expected offensive is the most common topic of conversation between businessmen and villagers.”

Refugee children in Ei Tu Hta must be ready to flee if they are attacked. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/ The Irrawaddy)

One anonymous DKBA source said DKBA forces will be stationed along the Salween River after the offensive against Brigade 5 is complete.

The DKBA will take control of logging, border trade taxation and security around dam construction sites on the Salween and Moei rivers, he said.

If the DKBA gains control along along the Salween, Karen relief groups will find it difficult to transport supplies by boat from the Thai border to areas still under KNLA control, sources said.

Border traders also expressed fears about restrictions if the DKBA gains control.

The Salween River is one of the main conduits for Thai-Burmese trade, which decreased after the DKBA split from KNU in 1995. Trade has increased in recent years, however.

Burmese forces stationed in some areas along the river said they will withdraw and be replaced by the DKBA over the next year.

One of the strongest ethnic ceasefire groups in Burma, the DKBA is the only force that agreed with the Burmese regime’s order to transform its troops into a border guard force. Other strong armed groups such as the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization rejected the order.

According to the Burmese regime, the DKBA is among 17 ethnic ceasefire groups that signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese regime since 1995.

The joint Burmese DKBA force overran KNLA Brigade 7 in southern Karen State in July after three weeks of fighting. Since then, some border trade including logging and surveying for dam construction has resumed, border sources said.

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