The Kaw Thoo Lei Army (KTLA) said it is attacking Shwe Kokko in Karen State’s Myawaddy Township because the joint venture between the junta-affiliated Border Guard Force (BGF) and shady Chinese tycoons to run the casino town is harming the state.
A Facebook statement issued on Friday and signed by KTLA headquarters explained that the ethnic Karen armed group is attacking Shwe Kokko because the new city is a hub of drugs and sex-trafficking that funds the military regime with dirty money. It states that ethnic women are being trafficked for prostitution in the city, while foreign citizens are recruited as online scammers under false pretenses.
The statement, which quickly went viral, also urged people in Shwe Kokko to leave the battle zone. More than 10,000 people have reportedly fled the area over the past few days as fighting intensifies.
The KTLA was formed in July 2022 and is led by Brigadier General Saw Nedah Mya, who split from the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest ethnic armed group in Myanmar. The KTLA has been fighting the regime alongside other resistance forces in Karen State.
When contacted by The Irrawaddy, Brig-Gen Saw Nedah Mya said he was too busy to comment. A source close to the KTLA confirmed that the statement was issued by KTLA headquarters. He said junta troops and allied Karen resistance forces were still fighting around Myawaddy but declined to provide details about the clashes.
The Lion Battalion Commando of the KTLA said on Thursday that allied resistance forces had attacked junta and BGF troops in Hteewapalaw and Hteekawhtaw villages in Myawaddy Township near the Thai border and occupied five outposts. More than 80 junta soldiers were reportedly killed in the fighting. The Irrawaddy could not independently verify casualties.
Known as “China Town”, the Shwe Kokko project is a US$15-billion collaboration between the BGF led by Colonel Saw Chit Thu, and the Hong Kong-registered Yatai International Holding Group. Launched in 2018, the project is located west of the Moei River which separates Thailand and Myanmar, some 16 kilometers north of the border town of Myawaddy.
Fighting erupted in the area after three members of the Lion Battalion were arrested by Thai authorities and handed over to the BGF on April 1.
According to sources from the front line, renegade members of the BGF and Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KLNA-PC), and troops under the KNU are fighting alongside the KTLA. The KNU/KNLA-PC is a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and has engaged in peace talks with the current regime.
Fighting continued in the area on Saturday, and Chinese people in Shwe Kokko are evacuating to Thailand’s Mae Sot, according to Myawaddy residents.
A Myawaddy local who asked for anonymity confirmed that Chinese nationals were fleeing the new city: “Some have fled to a nearby village. Some have fled to Mae Sot. I don’t know how many have fled. I think they are concerned that they might be attacked too as they have ties to the BGF,” the resident told the Irrawaddy.
Despite the fighting, some restaurants and casinos remain open in the city. The Shwe Kokko market however is temporarily closed, according to a local source who requested anonymity.
Around 8,000 people have fled to the Moei River near Mae Sot because of the fighting. Thai authorities have allowed displaced people to take shelter at five temporary camps along the Moei River, according to volunteers helping displaced people.
Mo Min Thway Thit from Nwe Oo Yeik Myone charity, which is helping displaced people, said the majority are children and elderly individuals who are in need of food.
Myawaddy residents believe the fighting will continue, and allied Karen resistance forces have also warned people not to travel along Myawaddy-Kawkareik road until April 21.
A Myawaddy resident told The Irrawaddy: “The regime has tightened security in Myawaddy because of reports that [resistance forces] will attack the town on April 9 or 10.”