KNU Denies Targeting Myanmar Military Officer Killed in Mine Blast

By Nyein Nyein 30 January 2020

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The Myanmar military has accused the Karen National Union of using an anti-vehicle mine to kill a battalion commander in a targeted attack in Karen State’s Papun Township on Monday, an allegation the KNU denied. The commander was serving as part of a unit providing security for a road-building project that the KNU opposes.

Lieutenant Colonel Aung Kyaw Soe, commander of Light Infantry Battalion No. 708, died when the anti-vehicle mine exploded at 3 p.m. on Jan. 27 near Nat Taung Village in Papun, said Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw).

The following day, military vehicles transporting goods to security forces and engineers constructing roads in the area were hit by anti-vehicle mine blasts near Muthae Village in Kyauk Kyi Township, Bago Region. The military said the attack damaged a vehicle and its shipment of rice.

Brig-Gen. Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, “The mine that killed the commander on Monday was planted in the middle of the road and was detonated in a targeted attack.”

“[The KNU] should refrain from such actions. If not, we will have to act for security reasons,” he said.

He added that at around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening, a number of soldiers were injured by mines planted by the KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) near a Tatmadaw outpost.

The Tatmadaw’s reconstruction of an old road connecting Bago Region’s Kyauk Kyi and Karen State’s Papun, which traverses areas under the control of the KNU’s brigades 2, 3 and 5, has caused tensions between the KNLA and Tatmadaw troops since early 2018.

The KNU says the road rebuilding project is a violation of the principles agreed in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which both the Tatmadaw and the KNU signed in October 2015. The standoff has caused a delay in peace negotiations for the last couple of years.

The KNU believes the military’s road reconstruction activities will lead to the deployment of more Tatmadaw troops in the area. The prospect has heightened safety fears among local residents, who have urged that the government, not military engineers, handle road construction work.

The roadwork was halted temporarily and resumed on Nov. 11. According to the military spokesman, local Tatmadaw units have held discussions with the KNLA’s brigades in the area twice in recent months to clarify the military’s position that its work in the area, including the development of road infrastructure, is aimed at advancing the development of Karen State.

Major Saw Ka Leh Doh of KNLA Brigade No. 5 told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the Tatmadaw needs to take the KNU’s views seriously. He denied the Tatmadaw’s allegation that KNU personnel physically detonated a mine to kill the commander.

“Brigade No. 5 does not accept the road rebuilding, so they planted anti-vehicle mines. These mines do not hurt those walking over them. They are only triggered by vehicles. Our troops reported that the Myanmar soldiers were hurt while trying to remove the anti-vehicle mines.”

He added that, as had been discussed at a recent bilateral meeting between the KNLA and military commanders in Kyauk Kyi, “If they [the military] want to transport rations for the troops on the other side, they can either walk or use horses—not vehicles. They do not take what we say seriously.”

The KNU brigades are based in locations lying between the military’s frontline camps and its bases inside the country.

Maj. Saw Ka Leh Doh said, “If the Tatmadaw continues to neglect the KNU’s demands, the conflict will intensify.”

Since Nov. 11, military vehicles using the road to transport rations and for administrative purposes have been hit by KNU-triggered mine explosions three times, said the military spokesman. There had also been seven armed clashes, while military troops had stepped on landmines seven times. Military troops had conduced demining operations eight times, he said.

Brig-Gen. Zaw Min Tun added that during a meeting in Naypyitaw on Oct. 29, KNU chairman Padoh Saw Mutu Say Poe and Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing discussed the need for all sides to put aside their differences and work together for peace. They discussed avoiding further engagement of ground forces.

Road rebuilding in the Papun and Kyauk Kyi areas is “not related to military aims, but purely to improve road access,” the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services said on Wednesday.

The military said it had sent complaint letters to the Joint-Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) and the KNU via the Bago regional minister for security and border affairs. It said, “The Tatmadaw will continue its work toward regional development, security and territorial control.”

Whereas the Tatmadaw previously submitted such complaints directly to the KNU and through the JMC, following the death of Lt-Col. Aung Kyaw Soe, the military decided to make this week’s mine explosions in the area public.

“It shows that the Tatmadaw is not pleased with the KNLA’s actions,” said Dr. Min Zaw Oo, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security and an adviser to the Myanmar Peace Commission.

“The KNU/KNLA also take the position that they are not attacking,” he said. Rather, they see the planting of landmines or anti-vehicle mines as defensive operations to deter military troops from trespassing in their areas, he said.

At negotiations in Kyauk Kyi early this month, the military agreed to upgrade the existing road, not expand it, said Dr. Min Zaw Oo, adding that the bilateral meeting was positive, as the KNU raised its concerns and the Tatmadaw discussed the aims of its road reconstruction.

However, some observers are concerned that this week’s incident within the KNU-controlled area will lead to fresh delays in the recently resumed peace process.

But Dr. Min Zaw Oo said he is optimistic that it would not affect the upcoming peace negotiations, as both the KNU and the military are being cautious.

Htet Naing Zaw and Lawi Weng contributed to this report.

You may also like these stories:

Fighting Escalates in Northern Shan State as Peace Conference Looms

KIO, Myanmar Peace Team Discuss Truce, IDPs

Mine Blast Kills 4 Rohingya Children in Myanmar’s Rakhine State