Junta recaptures key border base, but Karen rebels say fight isn’t over

The two sides are fighting for control of Myawaddy, a major trade hub on the Thai border.
By Wai Mar Tun for RFA Burmese
2024.04.24
Junta recaptures key border base, but Karen rebels say fight isn’t over People cross the Moei river as they flee Myawaddy township in Myanmar to Thailand's Mae Sot town in Thailand's Tak province, Saturday, April 20, 2024.
Warangkana Wanichachewa/AP

Myanmar’s military has reclaimed a key base in Myawaddy, a trading hub on the Thai border, after it fell to rebels earlier this month, an official with an ethnic Karen militant group said Wednesday. But he called its withdrawal “temporary” and said it has no intention of entering into peace talks with the junta.

Myawaddy, in eastern Kayin state across the border from the Thai city of Mae Sot, has been the focal point of fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army, or KNLA, and the junta in recent weeks, amid a wider civil war in Myanmar that followed the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat.

On April 10, the KNLA – the armed branch of the Karen National Union, or KNU – and its allies captured the junta’s Infantry Battalion 275 compound in Myawaddy. It was the last junta base in the town, which effectively fell under rebel control.

In response, the junta launched a state-level offensive named “Operation Aung Zeya” to recapture Myawaddy, through which US$1 billion worth of trade flows annually.

While the KNU claimed last week that the KNLA had destroyed military vehicles and killed more than 100 junta troops marching enroute to Myawaddy, the military and members of the pro-junta Border Guard Force, or BGF, reclaimed the battalion compound on Tuesday, KNU spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee and residents told RFA Burmese.

“The junta re-entered the No. 275 Infantry Battalion base,” the KNU spokesperson said in an exclusive interview with RFA on Wednesday. “They took down the Karen national flag and replaced it with the junta flag.”

Peaceful withdrawal

A businessman with ties to both the junta and the BGF told RFA that the two forces held negotiations and took up positions in Myawaddy, which they will jointly administer.

"In Myawaddy, the joint forces of the junta and the BGF are patrolling and they have cleared the area near No. 275 Infantry Battalion,” said the businessman who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

“We also received information that the junta and the BGF will jointly manage Myawaddy, while the KNU and the [anti-junta People’s Defense Force] had to withdraw their troops and take positions outside the town,” he said.

ENG_BUR_Myawaddy_04242024.2.jpg
A general view of Myanmar's Myawaddy town is seen from across the Thai side in Mae Sot district on April 11, 2024. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

A resident of Myawaddy, who is close to the joint forces of the KNLA, told RFA that the rebel withdrawal took place peacefully.

“Fighting was suspended in order to stop the junta reinforcements from overrunning Myawaddy town,” he said. “The battle isn’t about fighting with guns, it is concerned with the business and rights of each group.”

Attempts by RFA to contact Major Naing Maung Zaw, the head of the BGF in Myawaddy, and Colonel Min Kyaw Thu, the junta’s minister for security and border affairs in Kayin state, for information on the military and security situation in Myawaddy went unanswered Wednesday.

Junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun told AFP on Tuesday that junta troops had retaken the battalion base, although they did not have full control of Myawaddy.

‘Studying their capabilities’

The KNU’s Padoh Saw Taw Nee said that the KNLA had maneuvered to “strategically avoid the trap laid by the military junta” and withdrew its troops from Myawaddy, stressing that there was no agreement made between the KNU and BGF to do so.

“If we took immediate action without consideration strategically, we would have fallen into the junta’s trap,” he said. “It is true that our troops are no longer in the downtown of Myawaddy … and we understand that  the public is unhappy about this news. That is logical.”

Padoh Saw Taw Nee said the joint forces under the KNLA had not withdrawn from the area and maintained control of bases formerly occupied by junta battalions 355, 356, and 357 in the hills near Myawaddy.

“We will take all possible action against them – it’s our most important mission,” he said. “We are studying their capabilities before we actually fight them.”

The KNU spokesperson acknowledged that the KNLA had taken losses in its efforts to take Myawaddy in recent weeks, but said casualties are part of “the nature of war.”

“Nothing comes free,” he said. “We had to pay a lot, with the sacrifice of lives, but the more we lose, the more valuable our rebellion becomes.”

Padoh Saw Taw Nee said the people of Kayin state had suffered far greater losses because of the junta.

“We respect and appreciate the losses of people, and we ask that they don’t lose hope,” he said.

No talks without conditions

Some 3,000 civilians have fled the fighting in Myawaddy, which also prompted around 200 junta troops to take shelter at a truck depot near Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge No. 2 – one of two bridges which regulate both people and goods between Myawaddy and Thailand’s Mae Sot.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee told RFA that the KNU desires peace as much as any group in Myanmar, but it will never enter into ceasefire talks with the military unless three conditions are met.

“First, they [the military] must agree to leave politics completely,” he said.

“Second, they must face justice during the transition period – he [junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing] should not get immunity for the offenses they committed. And third, they must accept a new constitution that is suitable for the establishment of a federal democratic union.”

On Tuesday, Thailand’s Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said his country is ready to act as a mediator in the conflict in Myanmar and help bring about a comprehensive resolution to fighting between junta forces and rebel groups.

Speaking during a visit to the border in Mae Sot, Parnpree revealed that initial discussions had already taken place with various parties in Myanmar, including the military government and ethnic groups, some of which are armed, and that Thailand was also looking to enlist support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Junta troops have killed at least 4,927 civilians since the military seized power three years ago, according to Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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