Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung claimed on Wednesday to have strong evidence linking Saw Lah Pwe to the drugs trade and told the DKBA faction leader to “surrender or be killed.”
Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) Brigade 5, has denied being involved in narcotics trafficking after he was named in the top five of a list of Thailand’s most wanted suspected criminals.
Saw Lah Pwe, otherwise known as Na Kham Mwe, held a press conference at his base in Myawaddy District on May 1 where he denounced Chalerm’s accusations as “groundless.” Chalerm later told reporters in Bangkok that “Saw Lah Pwe should voluntarily come to be arrested in Thailand as soon as possible or otherwise he will be killed in his own area [of Burma].”
Chalerm listed Saw Lah Pwe as one of the most notorious drug lords in Southeast Asia on April 20 and placed a one million baht (US $32,000) bounty on his head. The total reward for the capture of the entire 25-strong list is worth 12 million baht ($388,000) and is offered by Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board.
Nine years ago, a haul of drugs was seized in Tak Province, western Thailand, just across the border from DKBA-controlled Myawaddy. At that time there were reliable reports that these drugs belonged to Saw Lah Pwe, claims Chalerm.
Tension between the Saw Lah Pwe-led DKBA faction and the Thai authorities have risen as the rebel group shut border trade routes at several places under its control around Kawkareik Township, in Burma’s southern Karen State, to the Umpiem and Pop Phra districts of Thailand.
Thai goods mainly cross the frontier through gates run by DKBA troops before being transported to different part of Burma.
The Thai authorities have also deployed more troops on the border near Waw Lay, a stronghold base of the DKBA, for security reasons. Rebel forces led by Saw Lah Pwe remain on alert after he said that rising tensions may lead to border instability.
Saw Lah Pwe told The Irrawaddy that he wanted to seek justice through legal means because the drug allegations by Chalerm damaged his image. He said that he would even go to an international tribunal if found guilty, and that the Thai deputy prime minister must accept responsibility for his defamatory accusations if he is deemed innocent.
He explained that he invited Charlem to visit his bases to launch an investigation on April 30, a day before he held a press conference which was attended by several Thai journalists. He also claimed that the Thai authorities tried to block reports being published about the event.
Saw Bu Klu, an aide to Saw Lah Pwe, said that the allegations by the Thai authorities seriously damaged the image of the DKBA.
Htee Moo, a respected Karen cultural leader, told The Irrawaddy that there were reports that some lower rank DKBA officials and soldiers have been involved in drug smuggling through the Thai-Burmese border in the past, but not under the leadership of Saw Lah Pwe.
“Saw Lah Pwe is a straight-forward man,” said Htee Moo. “Now he has openly gone on record and denied his involvement in drug trafficking. So I do not think he was involved in the drug trade.”
Saw Lah Pwe is one of three Burmese nationals on Thailand’s list of its 25 most wanted drug traffickers.
In November 2010, Saw Lah Pwe confronted Burmese government troops in Myawaddy as he disagreed with converting into a pro-regime border guard force. However, he reached a ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw in November 2011. He has an estimated 1,500 fighters under his control.