In Central Mon State, Villagers Flee as Soldiers Hunt for Karen Rebels

By Lawi Weng 10 October 2014

KYAIKMAYAW TOWNSHIP, Mon State — Win Thein, a resident of Shwe War Chong village, said he had suddenly found himself in the vicinity of an eruption of violence on Friday, as Karen rebels and government forces engaged in bouts of heavy fighting in the hills and rubber plantations surrounding his village in central Mon State.

“Look, I still have to wear this, I could not go back to my village,” he said, holding up a dirty shirt that he has worn since fighting began four days ago.

Win Thein and has family were among a group of about a dozen villagers travelling on a boat on the Same River to the township capital Kyaikmayaw on Monday, where they joined a group of about 100 villagers
who were seeking refuge from fighting in the area.

Weeks of growing tensions and incidents between the Burma Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and other, smaller ethnic Karen rebels boiled over into full-scale clashes at several locations in southeastern Burma on Friday, leading to some of the worst fighting in the region since the government signed bilateral ceasefires with the rebel groups in 2012.

Heavy clashes between the DKBA and the army, involving mortar fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), were reported in Mon State’s Kyaikmayaw Township and near Karen State’s Myawaddy town over the weekend.

Fleeing villagers in Kyaikmayaw Township said they heard gunfire at around 10 am on Monday morning, but no further violence was reported during the rest of the day.

The unrest began on Friday during a scheduled meeting between the DKBA and government security forces at a rebel base in Kyaikmayaw Township.
Tensions rose so much that DKBA rebels detained the 20 security forces at the meeting, causing a Burma Army unit stationed near the base to launch an attack to secure the release of the government officers inside.

DKBA fighters fired assault rifles and mortars to repel the attack, injuring two soldiers. The stand-off continued until Saturday morning when the DKBA took the weapons from the officers and released them. After that, the rebels fought their way out of the base and disappeared into the countryside.

An Irrawaddy reporter and a photographer undertook a three-hour trip from the Mon State capital Moulmein by boat and motorbike to reach Shwe War Chong village on Monday morning and witnessed about 100 government soldiers along the road and in the largely abandoned village.

A source with the New Mon State Party, another rebel group in the area, said he estimated that some 1,000 soldiers had been deployed to search for the Karen rebels.

Soe Naing Oo, a Special Branch police officer in Shwe War Chong village, said five DKBA fighters were killed during the fighting in recent days, but refused to answer questions about the number of casualties on the government side.

The troops in Shwe War Chong were deployed to hunt down the DKBA fighters who fled into the countryside. About a dozen tired-looking soldiers put down their weapons, including several shoulder-fired RPG launchers, while resting at a tea shop in the village. They could be overhead discussing the operations.

“I shot one [rebel] who was hiding to shoot at us; he was staying in a tree. I saw he was hit and fell from the tree. I tried to go over and get his dead body, but they [rebels] were very quick and dragged the body away,” one soldier told his captain.

Shortly afterward, an officer warned reporters to leave and not to take any pictures of the troops. “It is not safe to be here as there is fighting, but the situation will be stable soon,” he said.

Maj. Win Hlaing of the Border Guard Force, a government-commanded Karen militia supporting the army, shouted to reporters, “Don’t you guys want to go back well, or do you want trouble?”

Win Hlaing shouted at his militiamen as they stopped to buy snacks at a local shop, “Don’t lose your gun and equipment. You should keep all your equipment all the time with you. If you lose it, I will punish you!”

According to residents at Donkachit, an ethnic Mon village near the fighting that had not been abandoned, RPG and mortar fire had landed not far from their homes throughout the day on Sunday. Government schools and health clinics were shut down as civil servants fled.

“There are no nurses and school teachers. They all went back to the [major] towns,” said a 50-year-old Mon woman, who declined to be named out of fear for reprisal from authorities. “We haven’t seen such heavy fighting in this area in 15 years.”

Nai Tun Maung, a resident of Donkachit village, said, “We do not know exactly what we should do. We wanted to go to check on our rubber plantations, but we were worried about the fighting.”