Rumours are emerging of a possible split among the pro-junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) following resistance by certain factions to government pressure to transform into a Border Guard Force (BGF).
Reports have said that large sections of the DKBA are ready to reject the government’s proposals that seek to assimilate ethnic ceasefire armies into the Burmese army as ‘border guards’, with the provision of having junta commanders inserted at brigade level.
Due to disagreements within the DKBA, it appears that the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has increased troop numbers and begun war preparations in areas controlled by the DKBA, including the groups 5th Brigade territory commanded by Colonel Saw Lah Bwe, who opposed the BGF plans. In response to this, Brigade 5 has begun stepping up preparations in its own side.
A DKBA official told DVB on condition of anonymity that beginning 28 April, the escalating tensions and fears of fighting had forced thousands of villagers to flee the area.
“The SPDC sent reinforcements to its troops deployed in the villages and [the DKBA] started doing the same thing,” he said. “The villagers were too scared to live there. I think [the SPDC] sent reinforcements so they can be one step ahead of the DKBA when the fighting kicks off and threaten the DKBA. I think the fighting will take place.”
David Thakrabaw, the vice president of the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been involved in a 60-year war with the ruling junta backed in recent years by the DKBA, told DVB that “the majority of the DKBA do not accept the BGF”.
He added however that the DKBA’s was “a vertical split”, implying that whilst the rank and file of the DKBA may be prone to oppose the BGF agreement, the same cannot always be said for their commanders.
Meanwhile there were unconfirmed reports about clashes between the SPDC and the DKBA on the evening of 28 April after Burmese troops learnt that some DKBA family members were fleeing their homes.
More than one thousand refugees have so far arrived in Thailand’s eastern Phop Phra province. Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) troops at the border said the refugees arrived in small groups and are currently taking shelter in houses belonging to relatives.
The refugees were from about 20 villages in Karen state’s Kawkareit town and Pa’an area. Thousands of villagers remain in hiding in the jungle.
A Karen woman who arrived in Phop Phra said that “DKBA soldiers warned us to be aware that there will be fighting with the SPDC troops. After we heard the warning, we were too scared to live there so we fled. My husband stayed behind in the village to learn the situation.”
A DKBA official who didn’t want to be named said that the group was trying to buy itself more time before having to propose a plan detailing its border guard transformation to the SPDC.
The DKBA’s 999 Brigade, under the command of Chit Htoo, has accepted the BGF and will most likely stick by their government overlords. Meanwhile, its 5th Brigade did not attend a recent meeting with the government to discuss the transformation.
Thakrabaw noted that details are still slim on the ground but expressed confidence that many amongst the DKBA had not given up on Saba U Guy’s founding principles of the Karen revolution, despite their ignominious split from the KNU in the mid-1990s.
“They can rejoin the KNU or remain neutral in this conflict. It’s a positive development,” Thakrabaw told DVB.
A number of ceasefire groups have in recent days rejected the government’s proposals. On 25 April the National Democratic Front (NDF), an alliance of eight armed ethnic groups, refused to transform, while the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) continue to resist the demands.