Late Sunday or early Monday, Klo Htoo Baw troops attacked the Thai-Burmese border town of Myawaddy and parts of the Three Pagodas Pass Township. The two areas are adjacent to the Thai provinces of Tak and Kanchanaburi.
According to the Mae Sot-based Karen Information Centre, 3 people were killed and twenty injured in Myawaddy on Monday. As fighting broke out in the town, estimates of between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees crossed into Thailand. The majority were being sheltered by the 346th Border Patrol Unit near Mae Sot with UNHCR support. Up to 2000 refugees crossed into Kanchanaburi Province to flee fighting in the Three Pagodas Pass area. On Tuesday afternoon, the Bangkok Post reported that refugees began returning to Myawaddy after the town was re-taken by government troops, with the worrying statement that no new refugees would be allowed to cross into Thailand. The Democratic Voice of Burma later reported that 5000 people had returned.
Klo Htoo Baw, which means ‘gold drum’ in S’gaw Karen language, was formerly Brigade Five of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The DKBA was formed in 1994 after a major split with the S’gaw Christian-dominated Karen National Union. Klo Htoo Baw broke away from the DKBA in April, rejecting plans to integrate into the Border Guard Force as part of the Burmese regime’s ‘Roadmap to Democracy’ Karen National Union officials have estimated that 300 Klo Htoo Baw troops were involved in the attacks.
Previously, DKBA brigades operated relatively autonomously with extensive local business dealings, as is the case with other Burmese insurgent groups. Myawaddy is strategically important as the main border crossing linking Yangon with Thailand and a centre for cross-border trade.
Col Saw Lah Pwe (AKA Na Kham Mwe), the head of Klo Htoo Baw, told the Irrawaddy on Tuesday that he ordered the attacks in response to Sunday’s elections: ‘We heard that the Burmese military regime forced the residents of Myawaddy to vote. People didn’t want to go, but we heard that the junta threatened them with a gun. So we started to deploy our troops in Myawaddy for security.’ There are also unconfirmed reports that Klo Htoo Baw soldiers took Myawaddy after first being attacked by government troops.
According to a Karen National Liberation Army informant, who has close dealings with Klo Htoo Baw, the fighting was part of a Burmese military operation to force Klo Htoo Baw to join the Border Guard Force and register their weapons.
While some Karen National Union leaders have said they are willing to provide military support to Klo Htoo Baw troops (here and here), one Karen National Liberation Army informant operating in the area thought an alliance is unlikely: “[Klo Htoo Baw] are not going to officially join with the Karen National Liberation Army. Now a lot of media are writing that because the DKBA broke the ceasefire, they will start working with us again. In reality, some of the DKBA have continued to work with us underground since the military regime first announced their plans for the Border Guard Force.”
“Of course we don’t like the idea that the DKBA made a ceasefire with the Burmese regime. They have been working with the government for so many reasons but the outcome of the ceasefire has come to nothing. Some of the DKBA realized that so they’ve changed sides again. Now they’re in trouble so we have to help them as they are our brothers.”
He added that a number of DKBA soldiers had also been defecting to his battalion rather than joining the Border Guard Force. While the two Karen groups have been at war with each other, there are extensive informal local networks between them involving intelligence sharing, transportation, trade as well as personal and familial relationships. Based on the political, social and economic situation, the local boundaries between allies and enemies are always changing.
Karen National Liberation Army brigades are squeezed between Thai and Burmese authorities and other non state factions. A local informant explained, “we [the Karen National Liberation Army] have been very quiet during the election – we couldn’t do anything because local Thai authorities pressured us [opposition groups] to be quiet and let the elections run peacefully. We followed that request because we don’t want our border routes to be shut down so it is significant that Klo Htoo Baw carried out operations during these days.”
In addition to the tragic human cost of the protracted conflict, there are serious environmental concerns as logging is a key source of revenue for Klo Htoo Baw.
Meanwhile, there are worrying signs that conflict could snowball in other parts of the country, as former ceasefire groups who have refused to join the Border Guard Force are preparing for battle. Key insurgent groups came together recently to form a new alliance that includes a ‘Federal Army.’