Skirmish Breaks Out Between Myanmar Military and Karen Rebels Over COVID-19 Checkpoints

By Zin Lin Htet 8 May 2020

Yangon — The Karen National Union (KNU) has reported an exchange of gunfire with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) in Papun Township of Hpapun District in Karen State on Wednesday.

According to the KNU’s 5th Brigade spokesman Major Saw Kler Doh, the skirmish happened after the military attempted to remove two KNU COVID-19 inspection posts.

“They [the Tatmadaw] set fire to a hut used to conduct COVID-19 temperature screening and demolished the other. This resulted in a standoff with our 102nd Battalion, which was followed by shooting,” he told The Irrawaddy.

The skirmish took place between the Light Infantry Battalions 405 and 440, based in Dawei, Tanintharyi Region, and the 5th Brigade of Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). There were no reported injuries.

Military tensions remain high in the area and the KNU temporarily moved its two COVID-19 inspection posts.

Tatmadaw spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun confirmed the fighting but said it did not take place at the KNU inspection posts.

“Skirmishes took place quite far from the inspection posts. I learned that it took place to the northeast of Wah Tho Kho village [in Papun Township]. Our troops on patrol engaged with the KNU’s 5th Brigade. The skirmish only lasted about five minutes. They opened fire on us and then retreated,” he said.

There was a similar recent incident in Kha Yaing Tee, an area near Wah Tho Kho in Hpapun District, according to Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun. The case will be addressed through negotiations at the Union- and state-level joint ceasefire monitoring committees (JMCs), he said.

Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security’s executive director, Dr. Min Zaw Oo, said the skirmish was due to the lack of clearly demarcated boundaries between the two sides.

“Disputes over territory arose as [COVID-19 inspection gates were set up] without prior consultation between the two sides. The case in Thaton was also a dispute over territory,” he said, about April 30 when the Tatmadaw asked the KNU’s 1st Brigade to move its inspection post in Thaton District, Mon State.

Territorial skirmishes, however, do not have a serious impact on the peace process, said Dr. Min Zaw Oo.

According to ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe, the fighting indicates that the government’s coordinating committee to work with ethnic armed organizations to contain the spread of COVID-19 in territories controlled by the groups has not been effective and there is no cooperation on the ground.

“It is difficult to say if they are only cooperating at the higher levels and not on the ground,” he said.

Myanmar’s military and the KNU’s 5th Brigade had also engaged in sporadic fighting over the Tatmadaw’s attempt to construct a road in Papun, he said. The issues cannot be resolved until the JMC meets, he added.

“The JMC has not been able to meet since the end of 2018. If the peace process is to be implemented according to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA], only when the JMC is activated under the NCA will territorial demarcation and a ceasefire be achieved,” he said.

Only territorial agreements will stop clashes, he said.

The KNU, as an NCA signatory, is working with the government in fighting COVID-19 as part of the government’s coordinating committee formed in late April to control coronavirus in territories controlled by groups.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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