Before the dry season’s battle between the Myanmar and Karen armies Viewpoints of a KNU’s military commander “General Baw Kyaw Heh” (Part 1)

This is a translation of original Thai article

The fierce clashes by the Salween River between the Myanmar Army’s soldiers and the Karen soldiers of the Karen National Union (KNU) last March to May 2021 has turned people’s attention to the KNU Brigade 5 led by General Baw Kyaw Heh, a key commander to take on the Myanmar Army.

Brigade 5 is one of the seven Karen forces under the KNU and responsible for the area from the border of the Karenni State along the Salween River and the Thai border opposite to Mae Sariang and Sob Moei Districts, Mae Hong Son, toward Hpa-an.

This border area is still mostly inaccessible to the Myanmar Army. 

KNU Brigade 5 aims to push out the Myanmar soldiers deployed at the 14 bases along the Salween River. Its operation has commenced since the Myanmar Army led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup to seize power from the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi including by blocking the supply routes for food and ammunition of the Myanmar soldiers.

The area along the Salween River in Karen State is known as “Kawthoolei” and it had its own independence until it was occupied and annexed to Burma. Still the area along the Salween River had been under KNU control until rifts within the KNU over 20 years ago led to the current situation with the Myanmar soldiers infiltrating and setting up military bases which are situated intermittently with KNU bases along the Salween River.

The current road blockade conducted by the Karen Army has affected the Myanmar soldiers’ supplies. It culminated with the controversial media reports in March 2021 when “the mysterious 700 sacks of rice” were discreetly left at a boat pier of Mae Sam Laep, Mae Hong Son, ready to be shipped to the Myanmar military bases along the Salween River.

The Thai government and Royal Thai Army officials have explained that they maintained their impartiality and knew nothing about this shipment of supplies to the Myanmar soldiers. Video footage, however, showed the transportation of the rice going smoothly through Thai military rangers’ checkpoints to reach the pier at Mae Sam Laep. Furthermore, there was no problem clearing the highway checkpoints between Tak’s Mae Sot District to Mae Sam Laep. This has not been explained clearly by Thai authorities, except for some ambiguous replies from the authorities. 

Meanwhile, the KNU has seized control of “Thaw Lae Hta” Myanmar military base, opposite Mae Sam Laep, along with a few other bases, with the ultimate goal of occupying the large Myanmar military base at “Da-gwin” opposite Ban Tha Ta Fang, Mae Sariang District. The takeover and burning of the Myanmar bases can be seen in photos circulated to the international press. 

The Myanmar military have responded strongly to these acts by launching air raids against key military bases of KNU’s Brigade 5, causing more than 70,000 people to run for their lives and take refuge in the forest, with several thousands heading toward the Salween River to cross over and seek refuge in Thailand. 

The standoff and skirmishes between the Myanmar Army and the KNU have been ferocious, but then this started to cool off as the rainy season was approaching. 

Still, the Myanmar soldiers continued to conduct its psychological warfare by sending in reconnaissance aircraft and drones.

Thai security officials and leaders of the community along the Salween River believe that as the rain ends, major clashes between the Myanmar Army and the KNU will ensue. 

This has prompted Tha Ta Fang School, just opposite the Myanmar military base in Da-gwin, to build bunkers for children. The villagers also made use of sand bags provided by Mae Hong Son provincial authorities to build their own bunkers as well. 

General Baw Kyaw Heh, the vice commander-in-chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Karen National Union: (KNU) shares the same outlook.

“People inside inform me that with the approaching dry season, clashes will resume and the situation will intensify”, the KNLA’s commander said in an interview with TransborderNews.  

“The situation now is the Karen villagers still live with much fear and concern. The reconnaissance drones (of the Myanmar Army) are sent in almost every day and night to find coordinates. Meanwhile, reconnaissance aircrafts fly over here a couple of days a week. The people are concerned. Even though in the past, the presence of these drones might not predicate air attacks, recently the appearances of such drones have been followed by air raids which have taken villagers lives.” 

People are still haunted by the clashes that took place during last year’s dry season. Even though many of them have returned to live in and nearby their villages, some have chosen to remain hiding in the forests. Meanwhile, a food crisis is emerging since they fled during the cultivation season. 

“People are very concerned since the Myanmar Army’s operations have become more precise. In the past, their reconnaissance aircraft could not provide accurate coordinates all the time. We also didn’t believe that the Myanmar soldiers would shoot at our people causing them to run in fear. But this time, the Myanmar Army has been shooting directly at Karen villagers. After the attacks, reconnaissance aircraft and drones have been sent in more often and we are concerned about the looming unrest. The Myanmar Army might expand the operations and increase the number of targeted areas. We are concerned about the people in Karen State” said a Brigade 5 commander, expressing how he feels about seeing his people having to run for their lives with their children when the Myanmar aircraft dropped bombs on Kawthoolei.

“We fully understand that each country has to uphold its laws and our people cannot just run across the border like they have.  We do not want to see our people running away like that. But as the air raids started and people died, the villagers had no other choice but to run. They dared not remain in their home villages. They thought it would be safe for them to cross the border at the Salween River since the planes cannot go there. We try to convince them to return, but they do not out because of their fear. They feel safer crossing the Salween River and they do not care about how hot the weather is over there. I do not want the border areas to have these problems, but there is no medicine to treat fear. We told them not to fear, but they do fear. And they have been running away for a while now. Their fear still remains. We told them despite the presence of the aircrafts, do not run. But they still do. They all know that as long as they live in Kawthoolei, the Myanmar fighter jets could attack them. But if they manage to get to the eastern side of the Salween River, the planes cannot go there. Despite our instructions, they keep running away.” commented General Baw Kyaw Heh about the suffering among these desperate people, which has become a key challenge for the Karen Army to tackle. 

“I just want to say that Myanmar has been attacking us for decades. If we have to die, we want to die in our homeland. If the villagers flee to the other side, they might cause a problem there. We do not want them to go, since that may cause them other problems. And it will cause problems for organizations as well. For example, if they run away for two weeks, and no one helps to feed their livestock animals, then upon their return, they may find their pigs (and domestic animals) are dead. This will definitely be a problem for them.” 

“I am disappointed that we haven’t been able to protect our own people. We cannot offer them protection. But these things have happened and I believe it will continue this way. There will be more people running away.”

The Karen villagers’ flight from deadly danger inflicts pains on the KNU’s commander who believes that the Myanmar soldiers’ offensive operations will follow the same pattern as last year and the KNU will find it hard to respond to such a grave situation. 

“After the previous incidents, we talked among each other about how to respond and how to protect ourselves. We have tried to educate the people to make them feel more at ease. For example, we told the villagers that the Myanmar aircraft would only attack military targets, not civilian areas. Despite saying that, we have found that in some areas- including in Ker Kaw Loo and Thi Po Hta- the Myanmar soldiers shot at farmlands, causing several injuries and deaths. We therefore told people to build their own bunkers and offered them training on how to use them.”

Many people who do not understand the Karen’s history tend to question why KNU wants to drive the Myanmar soldiers from the Salween River even though according to the modern nation state’s theory, that area belongs to Myanmar.

General Baw Kyaw Heh explains that “Formerly, Myanmar did not exist as a country. What they have nowadays are lands that have been inhabited for hundreds of years by various ethnic groups. The Burmans came later. The Burmans later wanted all the states to unite as a single country with the Burmans as the ruling class. But they failed in their governance. They did not take care of all the areas. For example, in Kawthoolei where we live, parts of our territory are inaccessible to the Burmans. They know nothing about our resources, the rivers, the mountains, etc. Myanmar failed in their governance. Shan State, Kachin State and Karen State have never been ruled by the Burmans. Although they claim these lands belong to Myanmar, they have never helped to develop them and we have been ruling these lands by ourselves.” 

“During the period of 1988-1995, the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) emerged and we had to sacrifice our headquarters at Manerplaw by the Moei River. Following this, the Myanmar soldiers have started to build bases in various spots along the border. The Myanmar soldiers at the border areas don’t do anything useful for the local villagers, or for the Thai government. They are only here to claim this area for the Myanmar government. We have told the Myanmar soldiers to go back, but they have refused to do so. If Myanmar soldiers would agree to pull out from the areas along the Moei and Salween Rivers, everyone could then live in peace. The Karen on both sides would live peacefully together.”

“If there were no Myanmar soldiers here, we would be able to rule ourselves and live peacefully. The KNU already has departments providing public health, education, etc. We can run provide these services by ourselves. Currently, all governance responsibilities are taken care of by the KNU, with nothing provided from the Myanmar government. We therefore demand our rights, as we belong to a nation and we have our own culture, knowledge and development, just like other people. We want to collaborate with people of other ethnicities and races, including the Shan, Kachin, Arakan, Burmans and Thais, as well as other nations. We can develop a cooperation and development framework together.” These goals of General Baw Kyaw Heh and the Karen soldiers of Brigade 5 are being carried out intensively. 

The KNLA General also emphasized that what the KNU soldiers do now is to uphold happiness and peace in the border areas. But the deployment of Myanmar soldiers at various bases along the Salween River do not benefit anyone and only create problems, including exploitation, physical abuse and killing of Karen people.  

“Myanmar soldiers are like a banyan tree which is growing on us and strangling us to death. The Myanmar soldiers are like a guest in our house who announce they want to sell the house.” 

General Baw Kyaw Heh says that the ultimate goal of the Myanmar Army is to dominate over all factions. They want to seize control of all areas even though the people of Myanmar are opposed to their dictatorial regime. The Myanmar Army continues to arrest and kill people. They want to rule and occupy whole areas and launch their operations all the time. They have set their plans and goals very clearly.

“Presently, the Myanmar Army is facing retaliation in many different areas, including in urban area where their forces are not sufficient.  They have thus resorted to a new kind of operations or a new warfare including air raids. They will use more of these methods. The Myanmar Army continues to look for ways to terrorize people in order to make them too fearful to rise up. They cut off supplies for the people. They do not just wage war against the people, but also look for ways to terrorize people, so that they dare not fight back. This will allow the Myanmar Army to rule and control everything.”

There were also several interesting replies from General Baw Kyaw Heh about whether it is feasible for Ethnic Armed Organizations to join hand in a fight against the Myanmar Army, how the Ethnic Armed Organizations provide training to Myanmar political dissidents and his vision for the Salween River. 

Stay tuned for Part 2

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