UPDATED at 12:20 p.m. EST on 2015-07-17
Ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Myanmar’s Kayin state plan to launch an attack on government troops to coincide with the official opening of a major highway in the area next month, the group’s commander said Thursday, amid a series of clashes between the two sides in recent weeks.
Colonel Saw San Aung, strategic commander of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) Kalohtoobaw column, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the rebels were operating on the defensive while the military trails their position south of Kawkareik township, but would attack if provoked.
“We are in defense mode, but we are ready to respond if attacked,” he said.
“If the government army continues to attack us in force, we will reciprocate on the opening day of their highway.”
The Asia Highway 1—a road linking the town of Myawaddy on the border with Thailand with Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon—was initially set to open with a ceremony on July 20, but has been delayed until an unspecified date next month due to ongoing fighting in Kayin state.
According to state media, nearly 40 clashes have occurred in the region since fighting began between the Kalohtoobaw column and government troops on July 2 after the rebels began operating an unofficial tollbooth on the Asian Highway.
Reports say the military has killed four insurgents and taken several into custody, while suffering “some casualties,” over the last two weeks. Saw San Aung confirmed that “two or three of our boys were killed” in clashes.
The Irrawaddy online journal recently quoted Naing Maung Zaw, a spokesperson for the government-allied Border Guard Forces (BGF), as saying two military soldiers were killed by a landmine on July 7 and five BGF troops were shot dead the following day.
Saw San Aung also confirmed official reports that government troops had seized 10 Kalohtoobaw vehicles containing weapons and ammunition, but said the supplies were left behind as part of a cache, bought earlier from the military, that had been found to jam during firefights.
The DKBA commander said that amid a Karen “unification policy,” the DKBA had jointly decided to operate a tollbooth on the highway earlier this month with Kayin state’s dominant National Liberation Army (KNLA) and its political organization, the Karen National Union (KNU).
But he said the tollbooth it had “caused unhappiness for the locals and we shut it down.”
He said the Kalohtoobaw column had since withdrawn from its positions along the Asian Highway, but the military had followed and repeatedly attacked it “creating problems and trouble for us.”
“[The military] demanded that our armed units leave the area,” he said.
“If the Kayin state government officially ordered the withdrawal and it was truly necessary, we would do so, as we had given our word. But [the military is] deliberately trying to cause problems in order to stir up a war.”
Saw San Aung denied reports that the Kalohtoobaw column was a “splinter group” of the main DKBA that had gone rogue.
“If we were, the DKBA Central would have kicked us out, but that hasn’t happened,” he said.
“I can see [the military] is using the same trickery as before and is still spreading lies.”
According to Eleven media, the KNU recently issued a statement urging the military and the DKBA to find peaceful solutions to clashes in Kayin state, saying the fighting could jeopardize ongoing negotiations between the government and ethnic rebels for a nationwide cease-fire agreement ahead of national elections set for Nov. 8.
The DKBA has signed a bilateral cease-fire with the government and it is a member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) coalition of 16 armed ethnic groups taking part in peace talks earlier this year.
Displaced by fighting
As clashes continue in Kayin state, fighting between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels in eastern Myanmar’s Kachin state has displaced more than 1,000 villagers in recent days, according to San Aung, a member of the Myitkyina-based nongovernmental organization Peace Coordination Group (PCG).
“Fighting has raged for more than a week [between the military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Brigade 1] in the Maliyan area, 16 miles (26 kilometers) from Sumprabum township [in Kachin’s Putao district], with the government side supported by air,” he told RFA.
“What we heard last is that more than 1,000 villagers have fled to the east bank of the [Malikha] river, where the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) administration is assisting them,” he said, referring to the Kachin political wing.
San Aung said clashes broke out between the two sides on July 11 and residents of five area villages have since fled the fighting.
An official with the Kachin State Security and Border Affairs Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the KIA and government troops had engaged in firefights west of the Malikha river.
The KIA has abandoned two of their posts since July 11, he said, adding that the Kachin Baptist Council is assisting villagers displaced by the fighting.
The new clashes follow fighting in Kachin state’s Pharkant region last month, that also forced around 1,000 people to flee to camps for safety.
A previous bout of fighting also erupted in Kachin state on May 6, when KIA soldiers used landmines against government troops, and the army attacked people involved in the local black market logging trade.
In response, the Myanmar government deployed two fighter jets to attack the KIA, the same day as President Thein Sein was meeting with leaders from other armed groups involved in negotiating a national cease-fire.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the Asia Highway 1 was subsidized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).