More Than 3,000 Villagers Flee Escalating Conflict in Karen State

By Saw Yan Naing 12 September 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — More than 3,000 villagers in Karen State have fled escalating conflict between a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and a joint force of the Burma Army and its allied Border Guard Force (BGF).

The residents of villages around the Mae Tha Waw and Myaing Gyi Ngu areas of Hlaingbwe Township fled after Burma Army and BGF reinforcements were sent to the conflict-torn Mae Tha Waw area, where the DKBA splinter group—named after its late commander Na Ma Kyar—keeps mobile bases.

An official at a liaison office of the Karen National Union (KNU)—the largest ethnic Karen armed organization—in the Thai-Burma border town of Myawaddy told The Irrawaddy that “four to five” trucks carrying Burma Army and BGF soldiers have been traveling to the area “everyday” since the beginning of the month, after the DKBA splinter group announced it would mount new offensives.

The KNU and DKBA both the signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the previous government last year, and have since had better relations with the Burma Army.

The liaison officer said the Burma Army and the BGF were “waiting for the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw to finish building a pagoda on the Mae Tha Waw road. After that, we expect more fighting.”

The Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw is a Buddhist monk, known as U Thuzana, who helped found the DKBA in 1994 out of a Buddhist faction splitting from the Christian-dominated KNU. He still wields considerable influence in the DKBA, and in the BGF. He has inflamed religious tensions in Karen State this year by ordering his followers to build Buddhist pagodas in the compounds of Muslim and Christian places of worship.

Sources close to the KNU on the Thai-Burma border, who asked for anonymity, said that current Burma Army and BGF reinforcements are intended not only to hunt down Maj. Saw Saw Aung, a leader of the DKBA splinter faction who is on a Burma Army wanted list, but also to mount a more comprehensive operation against the splinter faction.

“They have already calculated the risks and the benefits of launching an offensive,” said the KNU official.

On Sunday, the Burma Army and the BGF reportedly shelled the vicinity of Waboe Taung, also known as Wa Klu Lu, a base belong to the DKBA splinter group. There are believed to have been casualties but no figures have been confirmed.

Sources close to the DKBA said that the Burma Army—with troops from Light Infantry divisions 22 and 44—and the BGF were spread across several frontlines, in the areas of Myaing Gyi Ngu, Yinbaing, Mae Seik, Wa Boe Taung and Mae Tha Waw in Hlaingbwe Township.

Maj. Saw San Aung told The Irrawaddy, “Light Infantry Division 44 and Artillery Battalion 207 from Kyaik Kaw joined them [the BGF]. Some are coming from Ka Ma Maung and Ohn Daung across the [KNU] Brigade 5 border.”

“They [the Burma Army and the BGF] have fired artillery almost everyday. Because we are outnumbered, we only respond at the right time and from the right position,” he added.

In a video that went viral on Facebook over the weekend, some 2,000 villagers—abandoning their homes out of fear of further fighting—are seen being carried away on trucks, with the aid of the monk U Thuzana, to be sheltered in Myaing Gyi Ngu village. Many of them were women and children and were unable to take sufficient food and belongings with them.

Fighting in the areas of Mae Tha Waw and Myaing Gyi Ngu was also reported by Thai news agencies and television broadcasters. Several dozen villagers living in the border village of Mae Tha Waw crossed the Moei River into Thailand’s Tha Song Yan District for sanctuary.

Witnesses told The Irrawaddy that well-armed BGF troops have been deployed over the weekend along the Asian Highway connecting the border town of Myawaddy with the Karen State capital of Hpa-an. The highway remains open.

Sources on the border have speculated that the Burma Army and the BGF are seeking to gain better control of the Mae Tha Waw area, which is close to the former KNU headquarters of Marnerplaw and still features KNU troops along the Moei River.

Sources have also claimed that the Burma Army and the BGF is aiming to secure the site of the stalled Hatgyi Dam project on the Salween River in Hlaingbwe Township, close to the border with Papun Township. KNU Brigade 5 has opposed the dam, and has troops based nearby in the area of Mae Tha Waw along the Moei and Salween rivers.

When asked, a high-ranking KNU military official said that KNU troops based along the border had not gotten involved in the fighting, with no instructions to do so coming from the leadership.

KNU leaders have also yet to take any initiative in seeking to resolve the current conflict involving the DKBA splinter faction in negotiation with the Burma Army.