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Is Myanmar’s army reversing its losses? It’s complicated

  • By Jonathan Head
  • Southeast Asia Correspondent

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Burma’s junta, which suffered a series of humiliating defeats, appears to have held on in Myawaddy

The fate of the war along the Myanmar-Thailand border is turning with mind-boggling speed.

Two weeks after losing control of their base at Myawaddy, a vital border post, soldiers loyal to the military junta that seized power in a coup three years ago have retaken it.

The embattled junta, which suffered a series of humiliating defeats in other parts of the country, appears to have held its own in Myawaddy. But the picture is much more complex than this simple narrative suggests.

The sudden seizure by the Karen National Union (KNU) of all military bases near Myawaddy earlier this month appears to herald a significant change in the civil war that erupted after the junta seized power in a coup. State three years ago.

It was the first time in decades that the KNU, Myanmar’s oldest insurgent group, had controlled the city, a real asset since most of the country’s trade with Thailand passes through it, and it is location of several huge and very lucrative casinos. complex.

But the KNU never actually occupied Myawaddy, placing just a small contingent of fighters from the allied People’s Defense Forces (PDF) to control the Battalion 275 military base just outside the town. He kept the same police, immigration, and local government officials in place to run the city and maintain border trade.

One reason for the reluctance of the victorious insurgents was the presence of other powerful Karen armed militias, until recently allied with the military junta, and whose response to the KNU advance was uncertain. Avoiding clashes between different Karen groups was a priority, says the KNU leadership.

Calculations and considerations

The largest of these militias is called the Karen National Army (KNA), led by Saw Chit Thu, a warlord who split from the KNU in the 1990s.

He controls the famous Shwe Kokko casino complex, accused of hosting abusive scam centers. The money it generates funds a well-paid and well-equipped private army of several thousand fighters, which has operated since 2010 as a border guard force supporting the army.

In January, Saw Chit Thu announced he was severing ties with the junta, but the KNU accused him of helping soldiers who had been driven out of Battalion 275’s base but refused to surrender.

The other reason for the KNU’s caution was the army’s air power, which was used devastatingly in other areas where its ground troops were defeated. Last weekend, Mi35 helicopter gunships and Y12 aircraft bombed KNU positions in Myawaddy, causing numerous casualties and prompting thousands to seek refuge on the Thai side of the border.

KNU sources also say the Thai military asked them not to provoke a battle for control of Myawaddy, which would disrupt trade and send a much larger wave of refugees into Thailand.

The KNU leadership ordered its forces to abandon Battalion 275’s base, partly to avoid further destruction in Myawaddy, but also to focus on a much larger battle 30 kilometers west of the town .

Stung by the loss of Myawaddy, the junta ordered a large column of reinforcements, supported by armored vehicles and artillery, to reestablish control of the road leading to the border. It was the biggest counterattack attempted by the army since the series of defeats at the hands of ethnic insurgents that began in Shan State in October last year.

KNU fighters were deployed to ambush the column along the road as it climbed through the forested hills outside the town of Kawkareik, slowing its progress and destroying a number of vehicles.

The column is, or was, commanded by General Soe Win, number two in the military hierarchy, a sign of the importance of its success for the junta. He has now disappeared from the public scene, suggesting that he was injured or even purged by his boss, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Stopping or pushing back this column would represent a far greater achievement than the occupation of Myawaddy, ensuring that all border access in this area remains under KNU control.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Those seeking to escape the fighting line up at the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge.

But the KNU faces a number of dilemmas.

It says the number of people displaced by fighting in Karen state has risen to more than 700,000 people since the coup, or half its population. Intensifying the fight against the junta will only make the situation worse.

It must also maintain unity among its seven armed brigades, which traditionally exercise a high degree of autonomy in their areas. Before the coup, there had been bitter disputes within the KNU over the extent to which to compromise with the central government in the interests of peace and promoting business in the country. one of the poorest regions in Asia.

The KNU must also now decide what its policy will be towards Myawaddy, the mainstay of the Karen State economy. Historical distrust and resentment of Saw Chit Thu’s separatist KNA is high, and the KNU’s official view of casino resorts is that they are a source of transnational crime as human trafficking and should be closed.

However, Saw Chit Thu has ambitious plans to expand Shwe Kokko, in partnership with a Chinese company, Yatai, into a giant, cross-border entertainment zone. It is powerful enough to thwart any attempt at closure, unless it is backed by Thailand, which provides electricity and telecommunications to Shwe Kokko. But this is unlikely as long as influential Thai figures have a financial interest in the Shwe Kokko project. There are even senior KNU officials involved in the casino sector.

Based on discussions with KNU sources, it appears that the group was not yet ready to handle the complexities of occupying Myawaddy when it found itself in command of the military base on April 11.

The KNU has been fighting for an autonomous Karen state for more than 75 years, and its leaders take a long-term view of the conflict.

It has already firmly linked its fortunes to the anti-coup resistance movement, maintaining and training PDFs formed by dissidents fleeing the cities, and providing refuge for the National Unity Government, which represents the administration overthrown by the coup d’état.

But coordinating the FPD’s mosaic of ethnic armies, warlords and militias into an all-out assault capable of toppling the military junta is a monumental task, whose success is still far from certain.

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jack colman

With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class.After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim.Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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