The Karen National Union has rejected a comment by a Myanmar military general at a press conference Saturday that the Karen National Union (KNU) should have an open mind regarding the military’s expansion of an old road in Karen State. The road building has caused fighting to break out between the armed wing of the KNU and the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known.
Myanmar military General Soe Naing Oo said Saturday that upgrading the existing road will be beneficial to the area.
“Regarding the road rebuilding project, the Tatmadaw does not want the KNU to view it narrowly. We want them to look at the big picture,” he said.
On Tuesday, senior KNU leader Padoh Saw Th’mein Tun denounced the general’s comment and told The Irrawaddy that fighting has broken out because the military’s move to expand the road violates KNU policy.
“If they are rebuilding the road just to transport food and operate a military base, they do not need such a big road. We let them rebuild the road up to 30-40 feet [wide] and that was enough. That was enough for one car to drive,” said Padoh Saw Th’mein Tun, who is a member of the KNU Central Executive Committee.
“But they did not rebuild like we told them. They are rebuilding it even bigger, so it isn’t true that the KNU is taking a narrow view of this,” the KNU leader said.
According to Gen. Soe Naing Oo, local Karen people and even the KNU could use the expanded road for transportation in the future. The general served as an army officer in Karen State in the past and added that he is well aware of how the state needs more development.
The Karen people have long suffered the impacts of Myanmar military offensives, though peace was restored in some parts of the state after the KNU signed a ceasefire agreement in 2012. The KNU signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government in 2015 and has since engaged in ongoing political negotiations.
KNU leaders say that they aren’t prepared to open their road blocks to the Myanmar army.
“They treated us poorly for many decades: they would speak of doing good, but do only damage. Our Karen eat rice every day [not lies] and understand the intention of the road project,” said Padoh Saw Th’mein Tun. “They have had many experiences of suffering and we do not want any more suffering. So we have to block the road, but do not say that we have a narrow view.”
“We will open all the roads when have equal rights and a federalist system is set up in the country,” he added.
According to the KNU, Myanmar’s Parliament has already approved a budget for the military to rebuild the road, but under the NCA, the military must consult with the KNU if they are pursuing development in areas controlled by the ethnic armed group.
Conflict between the Tatmadaw and the armed wing of the KNU, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), over the road began in 2018.
The army halted work on the road temporarily after KNU chairman General Saw Mutu Say Poe met Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw last October, but the military soon resumed work on the project.
In January, fighting broke out again when the Myanmar army reportedly entered territory controlled by KNLA Brigade 5 in Papun District without the KNLA’s permission.
The fighting between KNLA Brigade 5 and the military escalated after Tatmadaw officer Lieutenant Colonel Aung Kyaw Soe, commander of Light Infantry Battalion No. 708, was killed by a landmine blast.
The most recent fighting reported between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw was on Saturday.
KNLA Brigade 5 has also accused the Myanmar army of firing artillery shells into Karen villages, forcing local residents to run into the jungle.
Military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy that the military fired only at a KNLA base area, not at Karen villages, and that the army needs to use artillery in order to protect themselves from the KNLA.
The Thailand-based Karen Women’s Organization reported Monday that over 2,000 people in Papun District have been displaced by the armed conflict over the military’s expansion of its road.
Leaders from the KNU and the Myanmar military have continued negotiations around the case and met most recently on Feb. 19 in Naypyidaw. KNU leaders said they told the army to stop work on the road until the conflict can be resolved through dialogue.
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