As War Brews in Myanmar’s Karen State, Civilian PDF Groups Welcome the Fight

By Aung Zaw 21 December 2021

A few weeks ago, a young man in his mid-20s with the alias “Dragon” made an urgent call to his family and told them the Myanmar military was preparing to launch an assault on Lay Kay Kaw new city in Karen State’s Myawaddy Township, where he and his colleagues were hiding.

“I have no weapons to defend myself… We are short of cash; can you help me buy a gun?” he pleaded with them. Upon hearing the news, the family, with help from relatives and friends, managed to raise the money he needed—around US$3,000—to buy an M16 A4 automatic rifle.

Dragon is one of thousands of People’s Defense Force (PDF) members inside Myanmar who, desperate and ill-equipped, have placed themselves under the command of ethnic armed forces who have weapons and experience in guerrilla warfare. Many PDF groups have received little arms support so far, however, and have been forced to find their own funds to equip themselves.

Eventually, a grateful Dragon received the money from his family, who live in a major city in Myanmar, and placed an order for the rifle, but before his weapon could be delivered, the fighting arrived in the area where he and his friends were hiding and undergoing arms training.

Indeed, many believe the armed clashes in Lay Kay Kaw, which is located across the border from Thailand’s Mae Sot, herald the start of a wider armed conflict in Karen State. The military is better equipped than the Karen forces and the PDFs, but the latter are richer in morale and fighting spirit. They have been waiting for this war, though they know the enemy is powerful.

So far, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and cooperating forces including the PDFs have been able to push the regime’s troops back out of the area controlled by the KNLA’s Brigade 6.

Map showing the location of Lay Kay Kaw.

‘Peace village’ under attack

Lay Kay Kaw was built from scratch starting in 2014 with the help of Japan’s Nippon Foundation after a ceasefire agreement was reached in January 2012 between the Karen National Union (or KNU, of which the KNLA is the armed wing) and the Myanmar military.

The construction of Lay Kay Kaw, which is located near Myawaddy close to the Thai border and administered by the KNLA’s Brigade 6, was touted as a sign that the peace talks were working. In the mid-1980s the local Palu area had been the scene of serious armed clashes that had caused many of the local residents to flee.

According to media reports, in 2018, there were a total of 3,199 people living in Lay Kay Kaw, many of whom were villagers who had returned from refugee camps in Thailand. Today, they are again fleeing to Thailand or to safer places inside Karen State. The sad fact is that many of these people have spent their entire lives running.

Since the coup in February, many urban activists have fled to Lay Kay Kaw.

Military tensions escalated last week when some 200 junta soldiers raided the area, alleging that democracy activists and members of PDF civilian resistance groups were hiding there. Two MPs-elect from the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Wai Lin Aung and Dr. Pyae Phyo, were among around 40 people detained by the junta on Tuesday last week.

The raids and clashes followed the junta’s accusation that the KNU, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic insurgent force, was supporting and sheltering striking civil servants and anti-regime armed resistance groups.

The junta claimed that brigades 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the KNLA offered training and gave shelter to those evading arrest by the regime and supplied arms to groups engaged in urban guerrilla warfare in a number of cities and towns in the country.

Thousands of activists, participants in the Civil Disobedience Movement, professors, physicians, politicians and MPs, as well as celebrities and their families have sought shelter in ethnic insurgent-controlled territories, and Karen State is one of the more popular destinations. The KNLA Brigade 6 area alone is now home to more than 3,000 dissidents and PDF members who have fled there since the coup.

Fighting broke out on Dec. 15 and has continued since. This week, Myanmar junta troops have sustained heavy losses in Lay Kay Kaw at the hands of a combined force of troops from the KNLA and PDF civilian resistance groups. A combination of Karen forces including the Karen National Defense Organization and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army have joined the fight with the help of Dragon and his many young PDF colleagues who have been waiting to join the mêlée.

The onetime “peace village” is now the scene of intense fighting; several video clips have emerged showing the bodies of dead junta soldiers scattered around.

So far, dozens of junta soldiers have been killed, prompting the military to bring in artillery. More than 100 shells have struck civilian residences, forcing thousands to flee to Thailand.

Myanmar refugees, who fled their homes amid a surge in violence, gather at a temporary shelter in Thailand’s Mae Sot district on Dec. 18, 2021. / AFP

The much-touted Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed on Oct. 15, 2015 between the Myanmar military, the government of then President Thein Sein and eight ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) including the KNU, is all but dead.

Indeed, a full-scale war in southern Myanmar’s Karen State now appears inevitable.

Myanmar’s opposition forces including Karen and PDF groups are eager for this fight. Their fighting spirit is high and the level of support they enjoy from citizens, families and friends all over Myanmar is unprecedented.

Thailand has sent troops to man the border, as many thousands of villagers from Lay Kay Kaw and surrounding areas are now in need of shelter amid junta shelling and fears of airstrikes. Some 5,000 have fled across the frontier, many of them women and children, and approximately 10,000 more are still internally displaced.

Regarding the refugee situation, the shadow civilian National Unity Government (NUG) appealed to Bangkok “to allow the IDPs fleeing Lay Kay Kaw and seeking refuge to cross the border safely as soon as possible.”

The shadow government also urged the international community to provide urgent humanitarian and emergency assistance to the IDPs and urged the international community “to strongly call for a de-escalation of violence.”

Sadly, it may well be too late by the time “international community” wakes up to the reality of the situation in Karen State and in Myanmar.

PDF members take part in training at a base camp in the forest. / AFP

What about the junta?

The regime has sent in more reinforcements, including heavy artillery and jet fighters. It is not going to back down, though initial reports indicate that they have suffered heavy casualties. Karen insurgents have noticed a difference between their current enemy and the Myanmar military they engaged in serious battles with in the 1980s and 1990s, during which they lost territory and many lives. These days the military has no public support, morale is low and commanding officers’ abilities are either poor or woefully compromised.

Overstretched, the junta is being forced to pursue a dual strategy. While it doubles down militarily in Karen State, it is offering an olive branch in the north.

Even as the fighting broke out with the combined Karen forces on Dec. 15, a junta “peace” delegation traveled to Mong La in the north to hold talks—brokered with China’s help—with insurgents based in that part of the country.

The six EAOs are all members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

The talks were also joined by Mong La’s National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army North (SSPP/SSA-N). Notably, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) did not participate.

The KIA has accommodated and trained thousands of PDF forces in its territory. These PDFs are now engaging junta soldiers in upper Sagaing Region and Magwe Region. Undoubtedly, the PDF forces in the north are pleased to see the fighting in southern Myanmar. Indeed, they have been waiting for this to happen.

Notably, according to delegates involved in the talks in Mong La, the junta’s top-ranking generals were surprisingly cordial and conciliatory toward the northern-based EAOs they once branded as terrorist organizations.

Several ethic insurgent leaders who have fought the Myanmar’s brutal military for decades have concluded—not for the first time—that only if you have guns will the junta respect you. This time it seems they have been proved correct. And the PDF forces have heard the message.

Myanmar refugees prepare to cross the Thaung Yin River into Thailand after fleeing the junta’s shelling of Lay Kay Kaw and surrounding areas on Dec. 19, 2021

You may also like these stories:

ASEAN Acknowledges Illegality of Myanmar’s Military Coup

Post-Election Palm Reading as Myanmar’s Vote Nears

The Sinners Against Myanmar’s Elections