Fighting between Myanmar’s government troops and ethnic Karen armed rebels raged on Monday even as the two groups were making efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement, according to a rebel spokesman.
Government soldiers and insurgents from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) have been fighting for the last four days around the southeastern towns of Kyaikmayaw in Mon State and Myawaddy in Kayin State, close to the border with Thailand.
“Although top-level and low-level officials from both sides have been talking, government troops have continued attacking us,” a DKBA spokesperson identified only as Zayer told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
At the talks, the two sides considered ending attacks on each other and the return of weapons.
The clashes came as Myanmar’s armed ethnic rebel groups and the government failed to reach a nationwide cease-fire agreement on Friday after five days of talks, because of squabbles over military issues and a format for discussions on providing greater power to ethnic states.
The government soldiers and DKBA rebels had been locked in heavy rounds of fighting involving mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades in the hills and rubber plantations around Kyaikmayaw, The Irrawaddy online journal reported, calling it some of the worst fighting in the region since the government signed bilateral cease-fires with Karen rebel groups in 2012.
The report said the unrest began on Friday during a scheduled meeting between the DKBA and government security forces at a rebel base in Kyaikmayaw township, where the rebels detained several security officers.
In response, the Myanmar Army unit stationed near the base launched an attack to try to free the officers.
The standoff continued until Saturday morning when the DKBA took the weapons from the officers and released them, the report said, then fought their way out of the base and retreated to the countryside.
Fighting also ensued in Myawaddy township, an important trading center between Myanmar and Thailand, when the DKBA launched two attacks on military convoy vehicles.
An unidentified resident from the township told RFA that military troops and police were now guarding Myawaddy and sweeping for mines after finding a couple of small ones in the area, although it had not disrupted trade with Thailand.
As a result of the clashes, Thailand on Monday put its army on “high alert” in the border area where the fighting occurred, briefly closing down a major trade route, The Bangkok Post reported.
It said the Myanmar Army had requested the closure of the crossing between Myawaddy and the bordering Thai town of Mae Sot early Saturday, but reopened it later in the afternoon after the fighting had subsided.
The Myanmar Army has also increased troops in areas of recent conflict with Karen rebels, The Irrawaddy reported.
Tensions between Myanmar troops and Karen factions have escalated in the border area since August when the DKBA began blocking and demanding tax payments on goods entering the country from Thailand, The Bangkok Post reported.
At the same time, army troops began stopping uniformed Karen soldiers carrying arms from entering the area, and Karen soldiers retaliated by doing the same to government soldiers, the report said.
At the end of the latest talks on Sept. 22-26 to forge a nationwide cease-fire, the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents more than a dozen armed ethnic rebel groups, including the DKBA, said they had agreed in principle to a new draft accord for a nationwide truce.
Lian Hmung Sakhong, a representative from the NCCT’s Chin National Front, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the talks had been bogged down by details and fell short of expectations because negotiators could not see eye-to-eye on issues of “army placement” and “troop recruitment,” without providing details.
Government minister Aung Min, who leads the UPWC delegation, suggested that the talks had made less progress than the government had hoped.
“Although we had some agreements on certain topics early on, the discussion of details took a long time,” he said.
“More discussion can usually build more trust and understanding between the two sides, but it is normal that the last part of talks is the hardest.”
He said that despite some setbacks, the nationwide cease-fire agreement was “within arm’s reach.”
The two sides are scheduled to meet again in October.
Reported by Moe Kyaw and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.