As Burma’s government and ethnic armed groups prepare to meet for peace talks next week, on-and-off fighting between the Burmese Army and ethnic Karen rebels continues to plague eastern Burma.
The latest clash took place on Sept. 9 in an area controlled by Brigade 5 of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), near the Oo Thu Hta region of Karen State’s Papun District.
Maj. Saw Kler Doh from KNLA Brigade 5 told The Irrawaddy by phone from the frontline that one Burmese Army soldier was killed in the clash.
“They [Burmese Army troops] crossed the limits of the border line and entered our territory. They also didn’t inform us before they patrolled. They met with a group of our soldiers by surprise, and both opened fire. We later found out that one Burmese soldier died.”
The KNU signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 2012, but clashes between the two sides have continued intermittently ever since. Critics say a failure to consolidate the ceasefire through efforts such as the implementation of a code-of-conduct to govern the armed groups has contributed to the ongoing hostilities.
“We asked them [the Burmese Army] to inform us first if they want to travel anywhere in our territory. They can travel only where we allow. If they cross the line or don’t inform us in advance, there is always the possibility of a clash,” Saw Kler Doh said.
According to Karen sources who asked for anonymity, some clashes in the area controlled by Brigade 5 are not even reported to senior KNU leaders for fear that the fighting might affect the peace process.
Some KNU leaders are thought to be eager to press ahead with a government-spearheaded effort to ink a nationwide ceasefire agreement between Naypyidaw and Burma’s ethnic armed groups, while Brigade 5 leaders are viewed as more reticent to move quickly on the proposed accord.
Brigade 5 has an estimated 3,000 troops and is believed to be the KNLA’s strongest brigade.
On Sept. 1, the KNU suspended its participation in a bloc of 12 ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), saying it would focus its peacemaking efforts on a process led by the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups.
The move raised speculation that the Karen group might take the lead in pushing for a nationwide ceasefire, which the Burmese government is trying to secure but has failed several times to meet deadlines it has set for a signing.
In addition to the Karen rebels, two other ethnic armed groups—the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—have regularly traded fire with government troops in recent months. Those two rebel groups do not have ceasefires with the central government in place.
The NCCT is due to meet on Sept. 22 with government negotiators from the Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC), led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min, in Rangoon to continue discussions on a nationwide ceasefire agreement.