The Burmese military regime’s plan to introduce a Border Guard Force in Karen State, before the upcoming general elections are held in 2010, have run into trouble with some ceasefire groups.
Fighting broke out on Tuesday night, between members of the DKBA opposed to the BGF and Burmese Army soldiers.
As a result more than 300 villagers took refuge at Waw Lay, in neighboring Thailand.
Burmese Army artillery battalions have since taken up positions in the area in case the conflict erupts into full-scale warfare.
As the deadline for compliance to join the BGF neared, high-level talks between some representatives from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, held in secret locations on the Thai Burma border, are causing concern for those opposed to the plans.
The Border Guard Force is the military regime’s attempt to disarm and bring the ceasefire ethnic armies under the control of the Burmese Army before the planned 2010 election.
As the meeting ended, a DKBA representative from Special Battalion 999 said that after a prolonged and heated debate there was an agreement to accept the BGF.
But not all DKBA officers are united or behind the decision to join the BGF.
A DKBA officer speaking by phone on the Thai Burma border told KIC the outcome of the meeting was not representative of the feelings of all DKBA units.
“It’s mainly Maung Chit Thu and his followers. There will be a split in the DKBA. The ‘for’ group are arguing that if we don’t join [the BGF] there will be war and more suffering for our Karen people. But our people are already suffering, look at the recent troubles in Pa-an district; our civilians are refugees, our soldiers lost limbs to landmines and died in the fighting.”
Tensions around the talks have raised the possibility of further conflict. As a result, villagers in the area have started to cross over to the safety of Thailand. Villagers are also concerned about forced recruitment into the DKBA or the BGF.
In response to the tensions, the Burmese Army has ordered 10 more battalions into the area.
A Myawaddy resident who witnessed the troop movements said, “Since Tuesday, a lot of army trucks have been coming to Myawaddy.”
Getting the ceasefire armies to accept the concept of the BGF, has not been easy for the regime. Many groups have shown a reluctance to accept changes that the BGF will mean for their present structures and businesses.
Reasons given have ranged from a loss of ethnic identity, to a loss of arms, to being under the direct control of Burmese Army officers.
The military regime is concerned opposition to the Border Guard Force could result in ethnic ceasefire armies forming an alliance hostile to the military dictatorship that rules Burma.
In 2009, the Burmese Army attacked the ceasefire group called the Kokang Army, forcing 35,000 civilians to cross the China border and take refuge.
Under the BGF, the ceasefire armies will have to accept that the Burmese Army will have control over their soldiers, who will have to discard their uniforms and wear a new one with the Burmese Army insignia. Ceasefire army generals will be demoted and will not hold rank higher than that of major. All active soldiers older than 50 will be retired on a measly pension of 3,000 kyat (about US$3) a month and the ceasefire armies will have to give up their current businesses.
The loss of their businesses will hurt and is likely to be strongly opposed by the ceasefire leaders, who have grown rich on the profits from logging, mining, transport, karaoke bars, gambling, hotels and taxing trade gates in and out of their territory.
In Karen State, the Burmese regime is trying to encourage three ceasefire groups to join the Border Guard Force, including the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen Peace Force and the Karen Peace Council.
The largest of these three groups is the DKBA with an estimated 5,000 soldiers. An executive committee made up of high-ranking army officers currently controls the DKBA.
According to international military experts the Karen Peace Force and the Karen Peace Council have less soldiers and have less influence than the DKBA.
Professor Desmond Ball, a professor from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre said these Karen splinter groups are mainly used as a divisive tactic by the regime to split the Karen resistance. Professor Ball, reportedly said in The Diplomat magazine,
“Local dynamics play a huge part, whether its religion, business interests, education or perceptions that leaders are living well in towns while soldiers are doing the fighting on basic rations. These are all easy issues for the regime to stoke and cause divisions.”
Pastor Timothy, a spokesperson, for the recently formed Karen Peace Council, who also holds the rank of Major General, said in an interview with the Karen Information Centre that his group was not happy with the proposed BGF structure. He said the KPC was not attacking the military government, but wanted to clarify their position to the regime.
“We’ve met with the regime three times and each time we told them the Peace Council does not accept the Border Guard Force.”
Peace Council, chairman, General Htay Maung, said in an official letter to Lt General Ye Myit (Military Intelligence), that the Burmese Army was putting unacceptable pressure on his group to be renamed the ‘Burma Army Militia Group’.
“…no matter what name you come up with, we will not agree or respond to any kind of military program which disturbs the peace and security of the lives of our Karen.”
General Htay Maung finishes his letter with a strongly worded warning to the MI chief.
“If by our refusal to bow to your military programs, you call us illegal and by doing so declare war, you are no longer just faced with a one-party issue but with all the ethnics from every corner of Burma. Mark my words, the whole world will know who has destroyed the peace and stability of the nation. It is your call.”
Pastor Timothy said the Peace Council was initially formed as an alternative to hostile armed groups.
“We came back for peaceful reasons, not to fight.”
Pastor Timothy confirmed that large numbers of Burmese Army troops are deployed in the area and in spite of his claims to be a peaceful organization admitted his soldiers are getting itchy trigger fingers.
“They [Burmese Army] are trying to show us their strength. We’ve warned our soldiers not to shoot first, but if they start it, then it’s their mistake.”
The dissenting DKBA officer with access to the BGF talks said.
“Our commanding officer has told our soldiers to be ready and prepared for action.”
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