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July 15, 2009 (DVB), Around 70 members from two government-allied militia groups in Burma, along with two soldiers from the Burmese army, have reportedly defected to the opposition Karen National Union.
The move comes during an ongoing offensive by the Burmese army, supported by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), against the Karen National Union (KNU) that began on 2 June.
According to KNU joint secretary Saw Hla Ngwe, the soldiers who joined the KNU's Brigade 6 were from both the DKBA and the Karen Peace Force (KPF), who split from the KNU in 1997 and allied themselves to the government.
"On 7 July, Saw Er Wah from [the DKBA] came with 12 people, 16 guns and two walkie-talkies," said Saw Hla Ngwe, adding that around 55 more people had subsequently joined over the ensuing days, and brought with them weaponry and ammunition.
A source close to the KPF confirmed the defection, and said that two troops from the Burmese army had also joined.
"I came to learn about it when people from the DKBA office rang, asking if anyone had found their men who went missing," he said, adding that KNU Brigade 6 had confirmed the soldiers were with them.
When probed on the reports, an official at the DKBA office in Pa-an said that "it might be true".
"If they have gone, they have gone. We won't be able to convince them anyway, maybe they left because it is not good for them here," he said.
Saw Hla Ngwe said the defection was caused by the Burmese government's pressure on the ceasefire groups to transform themselves into border guards, and therefore come under the control of the government.
"If they are to take the [government] salary and do as they are told, they will lose their Karen identity and they will lose the right to freely do business," he said.
A number of armed groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the government have been pressured to become border patrol groups.
The move would allow the groups to become legal under Burmese law, and thus they would ostensibly be able to participate in the 2010 elections.
Recent fighting between the Burmese army and the KNU has forced around 5,000 civilians from Burma’s eastern Karnen state into neighbouring Thailand, with many citing instances of forced recruitment into the army as the reason for fleeing.
Reporting by Naw Noreen