Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shoot First, Talk Later in Myanmar

MAE SOT, Thailand - Fighting between government forces and ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar's Karen State has in recent weeks pushed thousands of refugees into neighboring Thailand. The upsurge in hostilities stems from the military regime's drive to transform the ethnic ceasefire armies into government-controlled border guards and in the process assert central control in the contested territories ahead of general elections scheduled for 2010.

Attacks led by the government-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and supported by Myanmar army soldiers commenced on June 2 against the Karen National Liberation Army's (KNLA) battalions and general headquarters, situated along the Thai-Myanmar border. The offensive has shifted international media attention away from the trial of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and short-circuited a recent Thai diplomatic overture to mediate a ceasefire between the government and insurgent group.

The struggle between the insurgent Karen and Myanmar's ruling military junta has ground on for 60 years, making it the world's longest-running insurgency. Fighting along the Thai-Myanmar border has been a source of friction between the two Southeast Asian countries, especially since Myanmar's military has asserted greater control over long-contested border regions.

Senior KNLA military officers who spoke with Asia Times Online claimed that Myanmar army units are in reality deeply involved in the ongoing military operation by committing around 2,000-2,500 troops from two battalions of the Southeast Regional Command and six battalions of the 22nd Light Infantry Division to the attack.
To obfuscate those deployments, an estimated 500 DKBA troops from its 333rd, 555th and 999th Brigades have been stationed on the frontline as an assault force, while the Myanmar army units have been positioned behind them. Those government forces have in recent weeks provided external security, evacuated casualties, transported food and ammunition and given artillery support to the DKBA.

Although heavier artillery is believed to be stationed in the area, the army has restricted shelling to smaller caliber mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, known to be used by the DKBA. KNLA sources claim that around 150 DKBA and Myanmar army troops have been killed and wounded, many from landmines, in the new fighting. Hospitals in the Myanmar border villages of Ko Ko and Meh Th'Waw are reportedly full of wounded DKBA soldiers.

Meanwhile, the armed assault is expected to intensify. More Myanmar army units have reportedly been moved closer to the border and analysts believe that when the current operation is completed fighting may shift to areas under the command of the KNLA's 6th Brigade in south Karen State. KNLA sources say fighting is also expected to resume in northern Karen State towards the end of the rainy season, in either September or October.

The upshot is that the Myanmar government looks set to gain control over all of central Karen State and a major stretch of the border with Thailand for the first time since the country achieved independence in 1948. Although democratic elections are planned for next year and the government has greater control over the region than ever before, greater militarization under an unpopular insurgent group-turned-government militia means stability for Karen State is far from assured.
Extract from article By Brian McCartan
Asia Times
Thursday, June 25, 2009

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