Viewpoints of a KNU’s military commander “General Baw Kyaw Heh” (Part 2, the end)

This is a translation of original Thai article

Due to its location among high mountain terrains abundant with pristine forests and with the Salween River marking the borderline between Thailand and Myanmar, the KNLA’s Brigade 5 remote areas of control pose a huge accessibility challenge for Myanmar soldiers.

Previously, the Myanmar Army has attempted to conduct offensives using infantry troops to seize control of this area, but they have yet to secure the border areas along the Salween River given their unfamiliarity with the terrain and the fierce resistance of the Brigade 5 soldiers. Even though the Myanmar Army has lately adopted a new tactic of “Karen fight the Karen”, which has proven successful in other ethnic areas, this has failed to work in the areas near the Salween River.

The Myanmar Army has constructed many routes into these difficult to access areas. They have also supported various large-scale development projects along the border, including the damming of the Salween River. Yet, their goal has not been reached due to the opposition from local people and the KNU soldiers. Everyone knows full well that such dam projects will simply serve the military purposes rather than to benefit local people. 

Given its inability to support large numbers of infantry troops there, the Myanmar Army’s tactic since early 2021 has shifted to using fighter jets to bombard targeted areas. But given its lack of on-the-ground information and exact coordinates of the KNU military bases, a number of bombs dropped by the Myanmar Army have fallen on Karen villagers. Around 70,000 community members have had to flee and hide in the forests, while thousands of them have crossed the Salween River to seek refuge in Thailand. 

“There have been skirmishes in various places and the Myanmar Army has spread out its troops. I think they intend to use the infantry units, but they simply don’t have enough soldiers to execute their plans. They have done some additional deployment in certain areas, but it is not much” said General Baw Kyaw Heh, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) of the Karen National Union (KNU). He then gave his take on the impending battles during this dry season.

“It is very likely that the Myanmar Army will rely mostly on its air power. And they have purchased more aerial weapons lately including the jet fighters, bombers, and drones. It has been reported that the Myanmar Army has purchased a number of aircrafts while also maintaining their old aircrafts. They have been conducting aerial drills continuously, including using reconnaissance aircrafts to record coordinates. It is obvious that the aerial warfare will be used during the new rounds of attack. This is how the Myanmar Army is changing its warfare.” 

Even though the military regime led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has been condemned and sanctioned by various countries after their seizure of power from the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, powerful countries including Russia and China still remain allies and sell weapons to the military regime. Meanwhile, the KNLA only has local forces with a much smaller number of troops and weapons. These facts have made people wonder how the KNLA could respond to more attacks. 

“I cannot disclose all the information including who has provided support or who will be supporting us. But the fact is, the Myanmar military regime remains in power, and it can operate openly. Good people side with them, so do bad people. With mutual benefits, these countries are supporting each other. Both China and Russia have much to gain from Myanmar so they support Myanmar even though the Myanmar government’s governance does not meet the demands of its people. But the Myanmar government can give favor to the countries that have given them support, and they do not care about people’s suffering. They only collaborate for their what is mutually beneficial with other countries. They place the importance on their interests,” he said. 

“We, the ethnic peoples, have to keep the international community informed of our situation. Everyone has to continue to create such understanding. Some in the international community are sympathetic of our situation, but given their lack of understanding about our situation, they have no idea how to help us. Many of them are not aware of what our people demand. Even though we have to face this cruel situation, due to their lack of awareness, they do not extend their help to us.”

The Myanmar military regime continues to clamp down on dissidents every day, particularly after the founding of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). Meanwhile, negotiations to pave the way for peace with the Ethnic Armed Organizations have completely failed, and it seems that the violence in Myanmar will continue indefinitely. 

“I think that the Myanmar Army will certainly crack down on us. They will start with an assessment of the opposition groups and identify which groups should be prioritized for such repression. The Myanmar Army will not suppress all the groups at the same time. They will analyze the forces of each group, the power of each civilian group and further analyze which groups should first be repressed. They will adopt a scorched earth campaign to terrorize people. Each operation will be tailored for each region and the Myanmar Army will gradually proceed with their plans. Eventually, after using these kinds of harsh measures, they will return to use soft measures. The Myanmar Army has made a thorough plan and analysis of the situation.” 

“There are a number of Ethnic Armed Organizations who are opposed to the Myanmar government. We have cooperated with each other several times to fight the Myanmar Army, although such cooperation appears to only be guidelines and there doesn’t appear to be any concrete steps for this kind of cooperation. Some of the ethnic armed groups have even fallen under the control of the Myanmar Army due to the benefits they receive. 

“We have reached out to coordinate with each of the Ethnic Armed Organizations. We will proceed together and discuss about how each ethnic group will take on the Myanmar Army, and how can we fight against the Myanmar Army. The areas our ethnic groups control have different contexts, and the border areas of each group are different. Our internal conditions are different. But we will keep collaborating even though it may not be 100% as we expect.” 

“In the North, we border China, West with India, East with Thailand. Each border has its distinct situation. The futures within each ethnic group are also different. Our pasts are different. Even though we have tried to mobilize together, we have not been able to do it as effectively as we expected. But we will continue to collaborate based on our mutual understanding.”

Asked if Federal Rule is the ultimate goal of the Ethnic Armed Organizations, General Baw Kyaw Heh said, “Some groups think we should cooperate with the Myanmar government whereas others think that if we follow the formats, goals and direction set by the Myanmar government, it will not serve the goals of the ethnic groups. It is therefore difficult for us all to walk together. We have the right to rule ourselves. We must think about how to ensure human rights. How can our people attain the same rights as their people? Then, we can explore ways which enable us to live with each other.”

“First of all, we have to live by ourselves and we have to have the right to self-determination and self-rule. We have to create such rights ourselves. If we cooperate with the Myanmar government, we will not get the rights and freedoms for our people. Some think we should cooperate with the Myanmar government, but we need to think well as to when it is the right time to work together with the Myanmar government.

“It is not the right time now. If we join them now, they will make us disappear. We have to first ensure our people have rights and freedoms. With such rights and freedoms, and when each group of our people have their own rights, then we can look at how we can further collaborate.”

“To have the leverage over the Myanmar Army, it is not necessary only to fight with them. There are different forms of negotiation. Armed conflicts can only cause losses. In fact, there could be other ways out.” 

“There are different forms of warfare. We can wage war by negotiating, by writing, by having dialogue, by using arms, etc. We need to wage war in all of its forms. We need to defend in order to prevent losses, to prevent our enemies from massacring us, or from decimating us. We need to defend ourselves to ensure we attain the rights equal to other human beings. We have to wage war to acquire something and we can talk to acquire something as well. We need to write and negotiate. I believe there are always solutions. I believe we have to explore all the options of warfare. We cannot simply cooperate with the Myanmar government since what they want is a type of democracy in which all groups are forced to stick with each other and cannot separate themselves. However, there are examples from abroad whereby even in a federal democracy, secession is possible if the people desire so. But the Myanmar government will not let us leave.”

“After the February 2021 coup, there have been reports that various ethnic armed organizations including the KNU have offered armed trainings to young people who are opposed to the Myanmar military regime. Currently, many of them have returned to operate in various cities. They are waging both urban and jungle warfare. Will this make it easier to achieve their goals? 

“Those who have fled here are part of our forces. They could no longer live in their home areas due to the intense pressure they faced. These young Myanmar people are being exposed to the experiences we the ethnic peoples have long been exposed to. They could not bear being repressed by the military regime and have run away so that they can return to fight against the injustices. We need to help them to fulfil their fighting potential and practice the defensive tactics that we are good at. Some of them may wage information warfare or fight through their writing. Some may be good at using arms. We need to help them. We need to help them with both their urban and jungle operations. Everyone has to cooperate in order to overcome the power of the Myanmar Army. Without such cooperation, there is no way we can defeat them. Eventually, we all would be doomed to fail. Now is a chance to forge cooperation and help each other.”

TransborderNews ended the interview by asking General Baw Kyaw Heh about his visions for the Salween River.

“I envisage that people on both sides of the Salween River, the West and the East, those living in Thailand and those in Kawthoolei, can live together peacefully and freely. People on both sides should be free of fear, concern and grief. 

“In my childhood, my father took me across the Salween River. We then went to visit friends in Mae Sariang District. We forged friendships without fear. People on both sides of the Salween River did many things together. The merchants could cross in and out without fear or concern. I want people on both sides of the Salween River to live with fraternity and peace. We do not want any war. We do not want to have people living in fear and losing their lives in armed conflicts. That’s all I want.”

A key commander of the KNLA, he says this with glittering eyes, particularly when recounts his childhood and the way of life for the people on both sides of the Salween River. This helps us understand the calling that drives him and other warriors of Brigade 5 forward, as they devote themselves to ensure the “Salween River” continues to run free forever. 

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