An ethnic Karen armed group has accused the Myanmar military of using drones to surveil its headquarters in contested areas of southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state despite an official complaint about the activities, further straining relations between the two forces.
Relations between the regional command of the Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest ethnic rebel group, and a national military front-line battalion suffered a blow after the killing of a Myanmar officer by a landmine explosion in late January in an area where the KNU’s 5th Brigade is active.
Myanmar forces blamed the attack on the KNU, one of 10 ethnic armed groups that have signed Myanmar’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) to end decades of conflict that have stymied the country’s political development. The KNU signed the peace pact in 2015.
The NCA prevents military deployment, surveillance activities, reinforcements, armed fighting, the use of landmines and violence, and the damage of physical properties in all cease-fire territories.
“We are objecting to these surveillance activities because they can damage the trust between the two parties,” KNU vice chairman Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“It means they are watching our daily activities,” he said. “The peace should be built upon trust. Conducting suspicious activities like these can ruin the peace process.”
The KNU’s 5th Brigade sent a letter of protest about the drones to the military on Feb. 1, the same day an unmanned aerial vehicle was seen flying over Daepuno village near KNU headquarters, according to a Karen-language news agency report.
Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win said the KNU would respond accordingly if the Myanmar military continued the surveillance activities, but did not mention actions the Karen force might take.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA on Jan. 2 that soldiers were conducting drone activities in the area to survey the ground for road construction.
Responding to the KNU’s accusation, he said that the military still was unable to precisely define territorial boundaries.
“The problems arose in this poorly defined area,” he said. “We hope there will be discussion and negotiation over the [drone] matter with the concerned party.”
Letter of protest
Myanmar forces sent an official letter of protest letter to the KNU, which denied responsibility for the officer's death in the landmine blast, and to the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, which monitors cease-fires in accordance with the NCA.
“We have plans to negotiate,” said committee secretary Shwe Khar from the Chin National Front, an ethnic Chin nationalist political organization. “One of the agreements [in the NCA] is avoiding surveillance activities on each other’s cease-fire territories.”
“But the cease-fire territories have not yet been clearly defined,” he said, adding that in one or two months, Myanmar military officials would meet with their counterparts from ethnic armed organizations to define which lands are cease-fire territories and which are controlled territories.
“When these territories have been defined, these rules from the NCA agreement will be more applicable,” Shwe Khar said. “So far, both parties unofficially have agreed to meet.”
Myanmar political analyst Maung Maung Soe said the current tensions began when the national army started building a road through territory controlled by the KNU’s 5th Brigade.
“At first, they agreed to allow the road construction, [but] later a lieutenant colonel from the military was killed,” he said, referring to the Myanmar Army officer who died in the landmine explosion.
When the military accused the KNU of killing the officer, the KNU said that the blast could have occurred because the soldiers did not adhere to the agreed upon route for the roadwork, Maung Manu Soe said.
“The conflict should be resolved through the JMC as soon as possible,” he added.
Disputes between the Myanmar’s armed forces and ethnic armed groups over territories are frequent because controlled areas are not precisely defined.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.