Military tensions have been running high in Karen State’s Hpapun District since March 5, after Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, troops allegedly tried to repair a road in Lu Thaw Township — an area controlled by Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 5 — and sparked a fresh round of fighting.
More than 2,000 local residents have since fled their homes.
On March 8, Brigade 5 sent a letter to the union-level Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) to complain about the Tatmadaw Southern Command’s deployment of troops in KNLA-controlled territory to resume construction of the road.
On March 16, the ethnic armed group’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), said in a statement that it viewed the Tatmadaw’s work on the road a violation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and called on the Tatmadaw to withdraw its troops.
Padoh Saw Kwel Htoo Win, the KNU’s vice chairman, spoke to The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Kha about the military tensions between the KNU and Tatmadaw in the area and about clashes between the KNU and New Mon State Party (NMSP).
What is the latest development in the clashes between the KNU and Tatmadaw?
In March, Tatmadaw troops entered our controlled areas. According to our intelligence, they were around 600 troops. Prior to that, the Tatmadaw asked KNU Brigade 5 to let them rebuild that road. They said they would use the road to deliver food supplies.
We agree with the delivery of food supplies because it is stated in the NCA. But because of the limited level of trust and the concerns of local people, Brigade 5 asked them to use only horses and manpower. However, the Tatmadaw deployed more troops and we had to fire shots as a warning or sign of complaint. It was not a real clash.
The Tatmadaw also opened fire when they saw our villagers, who came back to their villages for foods after fleeing the shooting. Though it was not a serious clash, there were two or three exchanges of fire a day until around March 10.
But the Tatmadaw continued rebuilding the road, which we don’t accept. We’ve asked them to withdraw until we have reached an agreement.
So how is the negotiation going?
We have not yet spoken in person, but we are trying to arrange it. We have told them over the phone not to conduct military operations. We won’t do military operations, either, but we have to prepare to protect ourselves.
In its statement, the KNU said the Tatmadaw’s deployment of troops violates the NCA and that it can’t accept it. What do you mean by “violation” and “unacceptable?”
They built the road alignment even before we signed a bilateral agreement and the NCA [with the government]. At that time, we were still clashing with the Tatmadaw and parts of the road alignment were destroyed in the fighting. [The Tatmadaw] aborted construction of the road around 2008. It was no longer used.
After we signed the NCA with the government, local residents started returning to their villages and resumed farming. But they still don’t have trust [in the Tatmadaw], and although the military didn’t say its deployment of troops was for military operations, both we and locals have concerns.
According to the NCA, the Tatmadaw and the NCA signatories need prior approval to go into each other’s territories. But they entered our controlled area while we were still negotiating about it. This is a violation of the NCA.
Will this have a negative impact on the NCA process?
As we said in the statement, we’ll negotiate based on the NCA. It is the fault of the group that doesn’t follow the NCA. We will, however, make sure they follow the NCA. We don’t want the NCA to break.
Are there different views within the KNU about the clashes with the Tatmadaw?
We acted according to the opinion of the highest-ranking officials of the brigade. They agreed to solve conflicts through negotiation, and we will act according to that policy. We will check if the army deployed its troops because of instructions from upper levels or if the troops at the lower level acted on their own because of logistical requirements. For our part, we are defending ourselves.
We heard that over 2,000 locals have fled the recent fighting between the Tatmadaw and KNU. What will the KNU do for them?
People here are honest and live a simple life. They returned to those areas not long ago. They just came back after we signed the NCA, and now they had to flee again. The weather was cold there, and it has negatively affected their health, especially the elderly and children.
As I’ve said, they have left behind foods in their villages. As military troops came in suddenly, they only took as much as they could and hid in the forest. They are concerned that they will be shot if they come back to take their food. There are health problems, and school children could not sit their exams as now is exam time. For the time being, district and township authorities are helping them. Humanitarian bodies of the KNU will also help them.
Has the KNU asked President U Htin Kyaw, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to help solve the problem?
We’ll try for negotiation, as we said in our statement. For the time being, we are planning to negotiate with the local battalion of the military. It will depend on to what extent we can build understanding. The level of trust is already low, and the fact that [the military] has done this [deployed troops to rebuild the road] has further undermined the trust we and the people have in them.
The statement said that there was a misunderstanding of even the basic idea of national-level political dialogue in the NCA process. Can you explain?
It is a problem that public consultations are not allowed to be held freely in the areas of some [NCA] signatories. This shows that we have different views about national-level political dialogue and therefore need negotiation.
What does the statement mean in stating that there is a need to coordinate deployment and the JMC?
What the JMC needs to monitor is whether the two sides follow or breach the bilateral agreements. But there is still no bilateral agreement, and we therefore said that JMC monitoring is unrealistic.
Will the conflict between the Tatmadaw and KNU hamper the signing of the NCA by NCA non-signatories?
Though they have not ceased fire, they maintain contact with the military. For NCA signatories, there is hardly any shooting now compared to the past. Skirmishes will still happen.
We need to build trust for the guns to fall silent. If one side violates, there may be shooting. But not every shot results in a clash, and not every clash leads to war.
We heard that there have been at least three clashes between the KNU and NMSP. What is the latest development?
The Brigade 6 district chairman and those responsible with the NMSP met and decided to hold frequent talks. They agreed to solve the problems through dialogue rather than armed fighting.
There are concerns that conflict between the KNU and NMSP may escalate. What will the leaders of the two sides do to avoid that?
We’ve formed joint committees in adjacent areas. But we have to make sure those committees are active. Different views exist anywhere. There are different views even in a family. Our territories are adjacent to the NMSP’s and there are differing views in some cases. Leaders will make sure not to resort to violent methods whenever problems arise.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.