Kayin Border Guard Force cuts ties with Myanmar junta

Observers say the move diminishes the military’s power and the junta’s influence on ethnic groups.
By RFA Burmese
2024.01.25
Kayin Border Guard Force cuts ties with Myanmar junta Col. Saw Chit Thu, secretary general of the Kayin state Border Guard Force, gives a speech in Myanmar in an undated photo.
Karen Information Center

The decision by the commander of the Border Guard Force in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state to cut ties with the ruling junta has dealt a blow to the regime’s military might and undermined its influence on the country’s ethnic groups, observers said Thursday.

Earlier this month, Col. Saw Chit Thu, an ethnic Karen former leader of the insurgent Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, said his junta-affiliated Border Guard Force, or BGF, would no longer answer to the junta, which pays the group’s salaries, or fight against Karen people living in the state.

He also proclaimed the BGF’s neutrality in the armed resistance to junta rule. 

Political observers and analysts told RFA Burmese that the breakup is significant because it diminishes the military’s power and the junta’s influence over ethnic minority groups, many of which have fought regime in the three years since it seized power in a coup d'état. 

The announcement came after Saw Chit Thu, general secretary and senior advisor of Kayin’s BGF, withdrew about 300 BGF soldiers from a military base it shared with junta troops near the border with Thailand.

The colonel oversees 13 battalions with more than 7,200 soldiers in Kayin and neighboring Mon state, which patrol parts of Kayin’s Myawaddy district, including the border with Thailand and the Chinese-backed Yatai Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone. 

He met with Lt. Gen. Soe Win, vice chairman of the junta, on Jan. 23 in the Kayin state capital Hpa-an to discuss the matter.  

“The lieutenant general said that he would report the discussion to the commander-in-chief,” Saw Chit Thu told RFA on Wednesday, referring to junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. “We hope to resolve these issues. They are still being negotiated.”  

Living in peace

Saw Chit Thu said BGF members no longer want to fight against their own people.

In 1994, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA, split from the ethnic Karen National Union and signed a cease-fire agreement with the government, pledging support for offensives against its former group in exchange for military and financial assistance. In August 2010, the DKBA joined the Border Guard Force, part of the national army. 

Members of the Border Guard Force patrol the Mae Tha Waw area of southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, Sept. 24, 2016. (Saw Tar Too/AFP)
Members of the Border Guard Force patrol the Mae Tha Waw area of southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, Sept. 24, 2016. (Saw Tar Too/AFP)

“It has been 30 years that the Karen people have fought and killed each other,” said Saw Chit Thu. “If we continue accepting support from the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military], we would have to continue to perform the duties of soldiers under its guidance.” 

“For us, salary is not the main thing, but rather to live in peace,” he said.

Analysts and ethnic armed organizations welcomed the news that the Kayin state BGF would go it alone.

Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based political analyst, said the decision amounted to a peaceful revolution against the junta.

“The military has nothing more it can do. That’s why they [left talks] without giving any answer. They dare not say that they will fight, or that they will allow [the separation],” she said.  

Hedging its bets

Political commentator Than Soe Naing questioned the Kayin BGF’s intentions and suggested the group is hedging its bets.

“It will not be possible to stand by itself for a long time,” he said. “If the cards are stacked against the junta, it will join the KNU, but if it's the other way around, it will return to cooperating with the junta and continue to be a Border Guard Force.”  

Col. Saw Kyaw Nyunt, secretary general of the Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, said that the move will benefit the Karen region and its people.

“My understanding is that existing independently and working for peace, which they want to do, will be much better than fighting and killing,” he told RFA.

RFA could not reach KNU spokesman Padoh Saw Taw Nee or junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw min Tun for comment on the Kayin BGF’s decision to split from the national army.

The Karen Information Center on Wednesday cited BGF Chairman Major Gen. Saw Tun Hlaing as saying that the junta had removed BGF Director Major Gen. Thet Paing Oo for failing to persuade the Kayin BGF to stay with the military.

In December 2023, Saw Chit Thu was sanctioned by the U.K. government for alleged human trafficking, forced labor and human rights violations in the China-backed Shwe Kokko New City project, a hub for gambling, online scams and other crimes, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported. The project is said to be a major source of income for the colonel and the Kayin BGF. 

“We do not accept scam businesses because they are illegal,” Saw Chit Thu told RFA on Wednesday. 

“We plan to send the people involved back [to their countries],” he added.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw for RFA Burmese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Joshua Lipes.

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