Will the first Myanmar border guard defection have a contagion effect?

It is imperative that the NUG successfully integrate the defecting Karenni forces and accommodate their leadership.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2023.06.27
Will the first Myanmar border guard defection have a contagion effect? Since the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front defected to Myanmar’s National Unity Government, fighting has been fierce in southern Kayah state. Here, villagers and resistance fighters gather and bury what they say are victims of a junta airstrike, outside the town of Pasuang on Sunday, June 25, 2023.
Credit: Free Burma Rangers via AP

The slowing of Myanmar military defections to the National Unity Government (NUG) since 2022 challenges the opposition theory of victory based on hollowing out the junta army as an effective fighting force, spread too thinly across too many fronts. The Myanmar military’s most important victory to date may not have been on the battlefield, but in the barracks, having staved off mass defections. 

Cracks have recently emerged, however, as the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) announced that its two battalions had defected to the NUG. The border guard forces on the country’s eastern frontier with Thailand had been integrated into the Myanmar military for more than a decade.

Though small with only a few hundred men, it is the first Border Guard Force (BGF) to defect en masse. And while it is one of dozens of BGFs, which are in no way a monolithic force, the reasons for their defection may be shared more widely across the multi-ethnic country of 55 million people.

The Border Guard Forces

Border Guard Forces emerged as the Myanmar military reached ceasefires with various ethnic resistance organizations that had been fighting the central government for decades. This accelerated during the National Ceasefire Agreement process, during which 10 ethnic armies signed a pact with the military in 2015. The military sought to divide the different ethnic armies and buy off individual commanders with promises of local autonomy, control over lucrative cross-border trade and more control over special economic zones. 

The most notorious example of these zones is the gambling hub of Shwe Kokko in eastern Kayin state.

In 1994, a group broke away from the Karen National Union/Liberation Army (KNLA), establishing themselves as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. In 2009-2010, they became the Kayin State Border Guard Force, under the leadership of Colonel Saw Chit Thu, and formally integrated into Myanmar's military.

Under the agreement, Saw Chit Thu was allowed to develop the area. Enter a Chinese national, with Cambodian citizenship, She Zhijiang, whose Yatai International Holdings pledged to invest $15 billion in Shwe Kokko, starting in 2017. 

Soldiers from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) provide security near their camp in Myawaddy, Karen state, Myanmar, close to the border with Thailand, in 2012. Credit: Khin Maung Win/Associated Press
Soldiers from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) provide security near their camp in Myawaddy, Karen state, Myanmar, close to the border with Thailand, in 2012. Credit: Khin Maung Win/Associated Press

Yatai New City is nothing but a hub of gambling, human and drug trafficking, and on-line scam centers. An ex-BGF colonel, Saw Min Min Oo, is one of directors of Myanmar Yatai, the local partner. Another key player is Chit Lin Myaing Co., ostensibly the corporate holding company of Saw Chit Thu’s Border Guard Force.

In December 2020, the military raided Shwe Kokko, but when the government tried to oust Saw Chit Thu in January 2021 some 7,000 border guards threatened to resign in protest, forcing a government rethink. The government quickly reappointed him and Saw Chit Thu became an important military ally following their seizure of power on Feb. 1,  2021. 

Since then, Shwe Kokko has grown, with rents paid to the State Administrative Council (SAC), as the junta formally calls itself. Thailand arrested She Zhijiang in August 2022 at China’s request and will soon extradite him, but business continues. Under pressure from China, Thai authorities briefly turned off the power to Shwe Kokko and other SEZs in June 2023. 

Border Guard Forces have done much of the front-line duty against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the cost of doing business with the junta. In April 2023, there was intense fighting near Shwe Kokko, which caused a large refugee exodus into Thailand. 

Though the junta’s border guards suffered heavy casualties, they were supported by the Myanmar Air Force, which eventually pushed the KNLA back; the KNLA and allied People's Defence Force militias suffered their own heavy losses. 

Since the coup, casinos and scam centers, funded by Chinese transnational criminal enterprises, have proliferated along the border, under the protection of Naypyidaw-backed BGFs. They are an important financial lifeline for the economically beleaguered junta, whose sources of revenue have dwindled due to their economic mismanagement.

The Karenni patchwork

Like elsewhere in Myanmar’s border regions, the political tapestries are complex and there are a multiplicity of actors in Kayah state. 

The Karenni National Progressive Party immediately joined with the NUG following the February 2021 coup and has actively fought against junta forces. They have worked with the Karen Nationalities Defense Force that was established following the coup as an umbrella for local people’s defense forces in Kayah State and southern Shan State.

The KNPLF was one of the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement parties, formally integrated into the military as the Karenni Border Guards Force.

Despite being on the junta’s side, the KNPLF has been attacked by the Myanmar military. On 24 December 2021, over 100 members of the 66th Light Infantry Division massacred and incinerated the bodies of some 40 civilians, including two aid workers from Save the Children, in Hpruso. When the KNPLF tried to intervene and secure the release of detained civilians, the military killed four of their members. In early 2023, the KNPLF refused to attend a ceasefire meeting in the capital Naypyitaw. 

Vehicles burn after Myanmar junta soldiers massacred and incinerated the bodies of about 40 civilians, including two aid workers from Save the Children, in Hpruso on Dec. 24, 2021. When the KNPLF tried to intervene and secure the release of detained civilians, the military killed four of their members. Credit: Karenni Nationalities Defense Force
Vehicles burn after Myanmar junta soldiers massacred and incinerated the bodies of about 40 civilians, including two aid workers from Save the Children, in Hpruso on Dec. 24, 2021. When the KNPLF tried to intervene and secure the release of detained civilians, the military killed four of their members. Credit: Karenni Nationalities Defense Force

Unlike other BGFs, the KNPLF control no special economic zone. As such their defection is not a financial loss for the junta. With fewer financial incentives than the border guards in Shwe Kokko and other areas, the KNPLF has been less willing to fight on behalf of the junta or be used as cannon fodder.

Fighting in the Karenni region has subsided in relative terms, according to the think tanks IISS and ACLED. And there may be a reason for the decline in violence: The various Karenni forces have routed the military in recent engagements. In reply, the military has increased air attacks; some 108 in Kayah state in April, alone. There’s been at least at least two since the defection, with more expected.

And yet, it is a loss and one more piece of the border that the junta no longer controls, between the Karen region and Shan State, adjacent to Thailand’s Mae Hong Son and close to Naypyitaw. 

While numerically small, the KNPLF immediately joined in military operations against the junta, which had tried to seize their headquarters in Mese township. Several military outposts near Mese fell over this past weekend, and there are reports that Light Infantry Battalion 430 surrendered, with up to 100 troops. If so, it would be the largest surrender to date. 

Finally, on June 12, a group of ethnic armies and opposition militias established the Karenni State Interim Executive Council, the first revolutionary state government established. The KNPLF’s defection helps to maintain political solidarity.

Contagion unlikely

Every Border Guard Force is their own organization, with their own political and economic motivations to maintain their alliance with the junta. 

The BGFs who control the special economic zones in Shwe Kokko, KK Park, and Kokang still have a financial incentive to stay loyal to the junta. Many fear the more puritanical ethnic armies, which are vehemently against the gambling and human trafficking that goes on within the economic zones and might not countenance being under the NUG umbrella. 

And given the fighting that has transpired between some BGFs and ethnic armies, the latter may not be too willing to embrace their formal rivals. Spread thin, the junta needs the border guards now more than ever, which gives them additional leverage over Naypyitaw.

A contagion is unlikely, but the first BGF to defect represents a crack. As the junta fails to provide other BGFs with materiel or air support, while milking them for funds and using them as fodder, some groups may take note. 

To that end, it’s imperative that the NUG handle this well, integrating the defecting Karenni forces and accommodating their leadership. After all, the theory of victory is based on the man-by-man, unit-by-unit hollowing out the junta’s forces.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or Radio Free Asia.

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COMMENTS

davis
Jun 27, 2023 12:35 PM

i am surprised that many more have not defected away from the junta and joined the resistence ,, the junta show that they have no friends when it comes to killing , lets hope that this is the start of a shift towards the resistence ,,