Victims of the Great Dividing Game

Joseph Allchin

July 3, 2009 (DVB), When the pro-Burmese junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army commander San Pyone fell to an ambush on the Moei river last week, many assumed that he was the victim of a revenge attack.

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) opposition group was perhaps seeking retribution for his alleged involvement in last year's assassination of Pado Mahn Shah, the then secretary of the Karen Nation Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA. Mahn Shah was said to have been a peaceable, diplomatic leader whose passing was strongly felt amongst the KNU members and followers.

Rumours are now circulating, however, that the KNLA may not have been involved in the ambush. Vice president of the KNU, David Thackrabaw, stops short of outright denial of KNLA involvement but has claimed in conversation with the author that they did not have forces in the area at the time, adding that "we don't want to point fingers".

Tellingly victims of the ambush have washed up in Mae Sot general hospital on the Thai side of the border, but they are not just from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Amongst the injured is a Karen Peace Council (KPC) member whose wounds bare witness to an attack from both sides of the Moei river which separates Burma from Thailand. The KPC is a small group who splintered from the KNU with the aim of negotiating with the junta. Despite this, DVB has received an anonymous tip-off in the form of a letter that it was the splinter group who was responsible for the attack. The letter details Karen Peace Council anger at being excluded from lucrative smuggling concessions.

If the KNLA don't have forces in the region and the 'third front', the KPC, have members amongst the attacked, this leaves a further two possible culprits. The Thai government was said to have had a warrant for the arrest of San Pyone for connection with the murder of Mahn Shah on Thai territory, but the likelihood of them taking to extra-judicial killings on both sides of the river seems slim despite recent skirmishes between the DKBA and Thai border forces.

Another possibility remaining is the Burmese government which, according to sources close to the KNU, has moved into the newly annexed camps of the KNLA and has forces near the would-be destination of the boat convoy.

After weeks of painful jungle advances, with troops falling to land mines, could the DKBA have had their crown pulled from their head?

This week a letter purportedly from a senior DKBA commander in Myaing Gyi Ngu was handed out in Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. The letter, whilst detailing a brief history of the politics of the region, took the form of an apology. It berated Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) for their callous killing of Buddhist monks in the Saffron Revolution in 2007. It goes as far as apologising to the Karen people for collaborating with the SPDC.

It also noted some of the reasoning behind the DKBA;s existence; that the KNU was a Christian-dominated organisation, a divide no doubt sewn and encouraged by the SPDC. Whether this letter was mere propaganda, as many in Mae La suspected, its wider implications are hard to guess. But it certainly draws the eye to a potential antagonism or lack of harmony between the two allies.

Meanwhile, in the wards and corridors of Mae Sot hospital the soldiers of the DKBA lie outstretched, young boys feeling for where their limbs used to be. Next to them lie their countrymen of the KNLA, now united in the ignominy of being crippled fighting one another.

Why the DKBA do not seek treatment with their Burmese allies in Myawaddy explains a lot about the tragedy of this conflict. While the Burmese military receive proper treatment for their battle wounds, the Karen of the DKBA do not.

Therein lies a motive for the SPDC to annul their allies on the threshold of victory. San Pyone was viewed as an ambitious leader, perhaps too much so, and thus a risk for the SPDC. No faction or leader should be allowed to maintain power with which to compete for control, certainly not a leader who could command nationalistic sentiments.

Or could the ambush be a deliberate attempt by the KNLA not only to avenge but to sew divisions between two potent allies?

Whoever killed San Pyone, the history of Burma it seems is a continuous struggle between the centre and the various ethnic groups, with the former forever attempting to dominate the latter.

The ethos of divide and rule has been a spectacular success in Karen state for the SPDC. The province is a difficult area for demoralised troops to fight in, and the past 15 years have seen the Karen consume themselves and put an end to the most potent armed opposition the country has known.

Many of the DKBA claim their struggle is simply now to put an end to the war and live under an SPDC government. The divisive tactics of the SPDC are plain to see in almost every ethnic region where it is seeking to turn former independence armies into 'border security forces' under direct control of Naypyidaw. The fact of the matter seems to be that the SPDC will never allow autonomy to flourish here. Their aim of domination by whatever means necessary will always entail the full extent of coercive power.

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