Armed Conflict Continues on Highway in Karen State

By Saw Yan Naing 31 August 2016

Fresh clashes have been reported on a stretch of the Asian Highway running through southern Karen State on Tuesday, following the death of the leader of a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).

Maj. Na Ma Kyar, who led the splinter group named after him, was killed on Monday. He was on a Burma Army wanted list. Clashes broke out on Tuesday after a joint force of the Burma Army and an allied Karen militia, the Border Guard Force (BGF), approached the Na Ma Kyar group’s base.

The Na Ma Kyar group is based in a remote part of Karen State’s Kawkareik Township. It has exerted control, and collected road tolls, along parts of the Asian Highway, which was built to ease trade and transit between Burma and Thailand via the Myawaddy-Mae Sot border.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the splinter group warned that fighting would escalate if the joint Burma Army-BGF force kept chasing its troops. Another senior officer in the DKBA splinter group, Maj. Saw San Aung, is also on the Burma Army wanted list.

The DKBA, to which the Na Ma Kyar group formerly belonged, was one of eight ethnic armed groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the previous government in October of last year.

Saw Alex Htoo, deputy director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, told The Irrawaddy that armed conflict would continue as the Burma Army and BGF attempted to gain full control of the strategic highway.

“The Burma Army and the BGF have been trying to wipe out [the Na Ma Kyar group] since 2014. There will continue to be conflict unless they make a settlement to accommodate shared interests,” said Saw Alex Htoo.

According to local rights groups, more than 1,000 local villagers were forced to flee their homes in July of last year due to armed conflict in the area around the Asian Highway in Karen State. Many of the displaced villagers still cannot return home due to the risk of landmines and continued instability.

The Asian Highway, lauded by governments as part of an “east-west economic corridor” in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, has been criticized by rights groups for contributing to increased militarization in an already conflict-prone region.

Besides the Burma Army, the BGF and the Na Ma Kyar group, other groups that exert control over sections of the highway, collecting taxes and toll fees, include the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union and smaller breakaway Karen groups such as the KNU/KNLA–Peace Council.