CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The Karen National Union has urged the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, to stop deploying troops and doing roadwork in an area controlled by its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, in Papun district, Karen State.
The Karen group is worried recent moves by the Tatmadaw are undermining trust-building between the two sides and may result in more clashes in the state, where the Tatmadaw has been engaged in an apparent militarization effort since March.
“If the Tatmadaw continues its activities before a meeting between the KNU and Tatmadaw has happened yet, any problems or consequences will be the responsibility of the Tatmadaw,” the KNU said in a statement on Thursday that provided an update on the situation in Papun (Mutraw) district.
It has been more than a month since the KNU called for a meeting between Tatmadaw representatives and the KNU/KNLA’s Military Affairs Negotiation Team. The Tatmadaw has stalled on agreeing to the talks, however, citing the absence of the commander of KNLA Brigade 5, which operates in Papun, from the negotiations.
Military-to-military engagement between the KNU and the Tatmadaw has emerged as a potential channel to end the current clashes, following the Tatmadaw’s deployment of more troops in the KNLA-controlled area in early March. The clashes have caused more than 2,000 local villagers from Ler Mu Plaw in Luthaw Township to flee their homes since Mar.4.
Padoh Saw Tar Doh Moo, the general secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy that “as there is a space for discussion regarding any disputes, the Tatmadaw’s military expansion should not be happening.”
Since April 30, more bulldozers have arrived in the area to continue rebuilding an old road while six more Tatmadaw units have been deployed in crop-growing areas of local villagers, forcing the villagers to abandon their homes.
“The situation eased in mid-April, with some villagers even going back to their homes to feed their animals such as chickens and pigs. However, it did not last long, and clashes have happened every day in May and the villagers have been forced to flee into the jungle again,” Padoh Saw Tar Doh Moo said.
The locals insist that the Tatmadaw reinforcements have not been pulled back since March, with more military trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition being seen arriving in the area.
The KNU has repeatedly said that the current military activities “show the Tatmadaw does not take seriously the agreements made in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and disregards its negotiating partner.”
Meanwhile, the KNLA vowed in a statement on Thursday to fight to defend its “nationality” as the Tatmadaw has repeatedly violated the NCA principles.
Disappointed by the current peace process, even though the KNU and the Tatmadaw are both signatories to the NCA, observers of the process lamented that peace is nowhere to be seen.
“We really need peace,” said Hsa Moo, a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network. “We just live on our land, but we have to leave our birthplace and hide in the jungle. I am so tired of this peace process.”
“No one wants to be an IDP. Why do people have to flee after their leaders have signed the NCA?” she told The Irrawaddy.
The Myanmar military has insisted that the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee at the regional level has discussed the issue and how to resolve it. The JMC at the union has level also suggested military-to-military engagement as an approach to end the clashes.
However, the chief of the Bago Region JMC is also the commander of the Tatmadaw’s Southern Command and it is he who has overseen the militarization in Papun district. Therefore, the KNU doubts the Tatmadaw’s sincerity.
“Whether the commander will follow the orders of his superior or whether he follows the terms of references of the JMC is the question that remains,” said Padoh Saw Tar Doh Moo.
The KNU and the ethnic armed organization have proposed bringing in independent local and international monitoring for the JMC.
“The JMC also should review its stand,” he added.