A few days ago, I published a report based on sources by the Salween River at the Thailand-Myanmar border in Mae Hong Son. It was an account of how the Myanmar army officers at Jok Ya army base by the Salween looted a cargo vessel of the villagers which brought goods from Thailand’s Mae Sam Laep to Ban Mae Nuta in Myanmar’s Karen State.
The bank of the Salween in Karen State is littered with military bases belonging to either the Karen National Union (KNU) or the Myanmar army. In some area, it is subject to the control of the KNU since residents on both sides belong to a Karen community and the same kinship since even before the Salween became a borderline between Thailand and Myanmar.
The cordon off and the pressure heaped on the Myanmar army by the KNU to force them to pull out of the bank of the Salween River have intensified since the military coup on 1 February 2021 including the blockade of its supply routes.
Residents who bore witness to the looting of the vessel said that while the vessel was cruising toward Mae Kho Rapids closer to Jok Ya army base, several shots were heard to force the vessel to come to shore. With no other choices and since the vessel was in the middle of a deep channel toward the Karen State while the Thai side was littered with unnavigable boulders, the driver had to bring the vessel to shote.
As it reached the shore, 12 Myanmar army officers have unloaded many goods from the vessel. They were looking for rice, but there was none in the boat. Instead, they could only lay their hands on instant noodles, canned fish, etc. After some inquiry, the driver and the vessel were allowed to travel on.
After the news broke, the Thai 36th Ranger Forces Regiment has explained via its facebook page that it was false news. In fact, the Myanmar army were buying goods from the people. But due to some misunderstanding regarding the payment, the Myanmar army officers decided to take the goods to their barrack first.
The Mae Sariang Radio Thailand facebook page reposted the explanation of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment and it garnered quite some attention. Many people commented on the page expressing their disbelief in the explanation of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment and hurling lots of criticisms at the Thai army and how it has become closely allied and acted as a mouthpiece for the Myanmar army. Eventually, the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment’s facebook pace and the Mae Sariang Radio Thailand page decided to pull the plug by deleting the hotly debated posts.
News about the Myanmar army’s looting of the villagers’ vessel in the Salween River was like a blip of meteorite in the sky over the Salween River. This time, it sheds light on the clear relationships between the Thai army and the Myanmar army.
If the Thai army had instead reported that “we have not yet received the reports and are investigating the situation” or “the Myanmar army has offered its explanation posted via the Thai army’s page…”, it would not have made it look so outrageous. But as soon as the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment’s page asserted that “it was only a matter of misunderstanding” and offered an excuse to help out their Myanmar counterparts, the main target has instantly shifted to the Thai army.
The rants and criticisms wielded by local people were echoed in pandemonium across the Salween River Basin. It was not surprising at all that both the pages of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment 36 and the Mae Sariang Radio Thailand have decided to delete the controversial posts.
It is widely known how Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar Army Commander has forged close ties with the leaderships in the Royal Thai Army through his relationships with the late Privy Councilor Gen Prem Tinsulanonda who adopted Min Aung Hlaing as his own child.
The influence of the relationships between leaderships of the two armies has passed down to the forces deployed among the Thailand-Myanmar border.
In March 2021, the Thai army allowed the transportation of 700 sacks of rice plus other supplies to be shipped to the Myanmar Army from Thailand via the Mae Sot border checkpoint in Tak. They were loaded into the boats at Mae Sam Laep, Mae Hong Son, getting ready to be shipped to the Myanmar army bases along the Salween. But as news about this shipment of supplies broke, such rice and other supplies have gone nowhere and not reached the Myanmar army bases amidst fierce criticisms of the support.
The KNU’s blockade of supply routes in Karen State has further outraged the Myanmar army. They became even more furious after the supplies from Thailand were exposed. This has triggered the air raids to bomb the KNU’s Brigade 5 Headquarters in Day Pu No causing a displacement of over 70,000 villagers to run for their lives and live in the forest. Thousands of them have crossed the Salween to seek a refuge in Thailand.
The 36th Ranger Forces Regiment continues to receive much criticism as it has set up checkpoints to tightly control the transportation of humanitarian relief while barring access of the press and civil society. Meanwhile, efforts were made to rush to force the aggrieved and scarred villagers to return to Karen State even though it was still risky for their safety.
The Salween River’s bank at the Thai border is situated amidst the complicated power structure and home to forces from various factions, the Myanmar army, the KNU and the BGF (Border Guard Forces set up by the Myanmar army). Even on the Thai side, there are forces from various agencies, the military, the police and the border patrol police as well as the National Park officers.
Meanwhile, most of the residents on both sides of the Salween River are traditional Karens. Regardless, if they belong to which nation, but since the Thai state has drawn up the demarcation line mark the border and has annexed land which used to belong to the ethnic Karens, any policy imposed must be sensitive and takes into account the feeling of the native people, not dissimilar to the situation in Thailand’s Deep South.
Any project pushed to uphold political interest or vested interest of certain groups at the expense of local people including the diversion of the Yuam-Salween Rivers to the Chao Phraya River will only add fuel to the fire. They could be viewed as an attempt to pave the way for the interference and to serve the interest of the Myanmar army.
The Thai state’s failure in the administration in the Southern Border Provinces has become an unfinished bloody history. It could be attributed to a lack of understanding and outreach to the native people including the Malay Muslims.
The Thai army’s affinity with the Myanmar army is currently unprecedented in the past hundreds of years. But such close relationships between individuals or between the armies should take a back seat to national interest.
Do not write another bloody history at the border and by the Salween River.