A Karen ethnic rebel group on Wednesday defied a military order not to carry weapons and wear uniforms, saying it would not let its guard down despite a cease-fire agreement between the two sides.
Col. Saw Tiger, who leads a small armed group called the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council—a splinter group of the Karen National Union (KNU)—said the order by the local armed forces commander in Kayin (Karen) state’s Myawaddy town threatened ongoing talks for a nationwide cease-fire agreement between ethnic groups and the government.
“[Threatening us] is not a good practice while we are in the midst of the peace process,” Saw Tiger told RFA’s Myanmar Service, referring to a letter from the commander of the government’s Light Infantry Battalion 275 informing his group that they could not carry weapons or wear uniforms when traveling in Myawaddy.
“The whole world knows we are working towards peace. If lower level military leaders act this way, it will damage the image of [President Thein Sein] and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing [commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces],” he said.
In a letter dated Sept. 14, the commander of Light Infantry Battalion 275 informed the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council that “starting today, we fully prohibit all armed groups to wear uniforms and hold guns while traveling in the town,” the Irrawaddy online journal reported, quoting Saw Tiger.
“In urgent cases, your liaison offices in Myawaddy first need to inform us about the number of troops and guns, and where they want to go, before they can travel in the town,” the letter said.
According to Saw Tiger, the letter said that traveling in Myawaddy in full uniform “disturbs the citizens” and asked his group to “act in accordance with the rule of law, which is the basis of our cease-fire agreement.”
He said his group would ignore the order and that it had imposed its own restrictions on the government troops.
In response to the letter, the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council on Wednesday issued a statement banning government troops from entering Kayin state.
It said that in special circumstances, Myanmar’s military would have to inform Saw Tiger who is leading the troops, the number of soldiers, and the type and quantity of weapons, as well as where and when the group would be traveling in the region.
Saw Tiger told RFA that the statement would also be delivered to both Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing.
“We said in the statement that the KNU/KNLA had asked Myanmar’s military not to travel with weapons in the state because it makes the people concerned,” he said.
When asked if the statement would ratchet up tensions between the two sides, Saw Tiger said that the Myanmar military had begun the tit-for-tat with Sunday’s letter, but added that he did not expect the exchange to affect relations.
“When the military knows a mistake was made, the superiors must correct the lower-level troops,” he said.
“We didn’t release today’s statement because we hate them. It is meant to be more of a suggestion or a way of educating them about what they did wrong.”
The Irrawaddy quoted Saw Tiger as saying that in addition to the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council, two other Karen armed groups—the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the small rebel group Klohtoobaw Karen Organization (KKO)—had also received the military’s letter.
The journal quoted Maj. Saw Roe, in charge of the KNU liaison office in Myawaddy, as saying he did not receive the government order, though he added that KNU officers do not wear uniforms or carry arms in the town.
The KNU, the DKBA, the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council, and the KKO all have signed bilateral cease-fires with the central government and are allowed to maintain liaison offices in Myawaddy, where their soldiers regularly travel.
The letter marked the first time the three Karen armed groups had been ordered to disarm when entering the town, according to the Irrawaddy, which said it was unclear what prompted the message.
Some observers have suggested that the letter from the military commander in Myawaddy, which borders Thailand, was sent after the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council temporarily blocked 30 trucks that were attempting to transport Thai goods across the border last week.
The Irrawaddy reported that the move was “a show of force meant to draw the attention of Thai authorities,” whom the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council has accused of mistreating and extorting migrant workers from Myanmar, citing daily bribes they are forced to pay when crossing the border for work.
The KNU/KNLA-Peace Council have threatened to stage another blockade if they are not granted a requested tripartite meeting with the Myanmar and Thai governments to address migrant workers’ mistreatment, the report said.
Some KNU leaders are thought to be eager to press ahead with a government-spearheaded effort to ink a nationwide cease-fire agreement between Naypyidaw and Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups after the KNU suspended its participation in a bloc of 12 ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) on Sept. 1.
The KNU said it would instead focus its peacemaking efforts on a process led by the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups, raising speculation that the Karen might take the lead in pushing for the nationwide peace deal.
Myanmar’s government has failed several times to meet deadlines it has set for signing the accord, but hopes to finish the process this month and ahead of national elections next year.
The NCCT is due to meet on Sept. 22 with government negotiators from the government’s Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC), led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min, in Yangon to continue discussions on the pact.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.