Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeOpinionThe fight to protect the Karen homeland of Kawthoolei

The fight to protect the Karen homeland of Kawthoolei

Guest contributor

Saw Htee Cher

The Karen army is fighting hard in mid-2024 to consolidate recent gains and fend off a major regime intrusion.

In southeast Myanmar, the Karen homeland known as Kawthoolei is defended by the Karen National Union (KNU), which has two armed branches called the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Karen National Defence Organization (KNDO). 

Since the 2021 military coup, the KNU has added People’s Defense Force (PDF) battalions, led by Karen officers but composed mainly of soldiers from central Myanmar’s towns and cities. 

The map of Kawthoolei includes Karen State plus districts in eastern Bago Region, Tanintharyi Region and northern Mon State. 

The KNU detests the label “rebels,” applied by international media. By its reckoning, the KNLA/KNDO is the legitimate Karen army defending Kawthoolei, and thus cannot be “rebel” in its own country. 

The lack of international recognition of Kawthoolei doesn’t dampen Karen patriotism or commitment to achieving self-determination. They are comfortable with the role of underdog and do not get discouraged.

In March, the Karen army liberated the towns of Papun and Kyaikdon. The fall of Myawaddy on April 11 shook the illegal military regime to its core and demonstrated to all observers that Naypyidaw could certainly lose Myanmar’s ongoing civil war. 

Myawaddy is in the jurisdiction of KNU Brigade 6, which had battered down three hard-nosed regime battalions outside of town on the Asia Highway, and then another one at the entrance to town. The KNU then entered the city itself. 

While that victory subsequently unraveled and the KNU lost control of Myawaddy for now, it has not been a case of the regime re-establishing itself. 

Rather, the regime essentially bribed an ethnic Karen splinter militia, known as the Border Guard Force (BGF), which rebranded itself with the misnomer “Karen National Army [KNA]” in February, to rejoin the regime and at least nominally return Myawaddy to its control.

The KNU was unable to respond adequately in Myawaddy because it had concentrated its forces westward toward Kaw T’Ree town (called Kawkareik on Burmese maps) where the regime was sending a massive column of armored vehicles and infantry along the Asia Highway to retake Myawaddy. 

The rugged Dawna Range lies in the way, as do the battle-hardened Cobra Column, White Tigers, Black Panthers, and the Federal Wings drone force, among other units. 

The Karen army has howitzers, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and other weapons obtained from the defeated Myawaddy battalions. They control the highlands, firing down each time the regime attempts to mount the foothills, inflicting heavy losses.

Informal estimates are of at least 100 troops killed out of the 1,000 that the regime supposedly sent. For a month the armored column has stalled.

That column is called a “national-level effort” by the regime, which pulled divisions from Shan and Arakan states as well as the Karen State capital Hpa-an. It is as much force as the depleted regime can currently muster. 

The fact that it is taking so long to make any progress shows how weak it has become. If the convoy does eventually reach Myawaddy, the personnel and resources expended will leave the regime weakened still further. 

Already the redeployment toward Kawthoolei has left the regime vulnerable elsewhere, likely contributing to its losses in Arakan and Kachin states. 

To reinforce that point, some troops of the regime’s 55th Division have now been sent back to Arakan from Kaw T’Ree to hold off the Arakan Army (AA) in strategic positions such as Kyaukphyu and the western command headquarters. The regime simply doesn’t have enough manpower anymore to cover everything.

Whenever the armored column is eventually neutralized, the KNU will be forced to confront the BGF in order to regain control in Myawaddy.Nobody relishes the prospect of Karen-on-Karen fighting, but the behavior of the BGF as an enemy leaves the KNU with few options. 

Fortunately for the KNU, the BGF has been mostly guarding casinos and international scam compounds owned by Chinese crime syndicates operating along the border, in areas like Shwe Kokko. These crime hubs are a financial lifeline for the BGF. 

The BGF is estimated to have 5,000 troops armed and trained by the regime, but that is likely a gross exaggeration. More importantly, the performance of the BGF in actual combat has been pitiful.

For example, at the regime’s prompting, the BGF mounted 11 assaults on the hilltop redoubt of Latkatdaung outside of Myawaddy during the second half of 2023, and succeeded only in losing hundreds of troops.

The KNU, whose military effectiveness speaks for itself, still holds Latkatdaung. 

Furthermore, there are elements of the BGF that are sympathetic to the KNU, or unwilling to lay down their lives for casinos. Thus, any confrontation between the KNU and the BGF is likely to be short and lopsided, and spell the end of that militia.

In the south of Beit-Tavoy District (known on Burmese maps as Tanintharyi Division), the sluggish KNU Brigade 4 has finally sprung to life. In attacking the regime, Brigade 4 joins numerous local Karen PDFs that have been fighting there for three years with little support. 

By now the latter have improved their combat effectiveness and armaments. They excel in drone warfare and like to mount surprise guerrilla attacks on regime outposts. Lately these attacks have resulted in the capture of army camps and police barracks, similar to the other Karen brigades. Karen forces now hold most rural areas and some strategic sections of highway.

Elsewhere in Kawthoolei, it is now possible to drive for hours at a time without leaving liberated territory, where the KNU is the only government.

Hundreds of schools formerly run by the regime Ministry of Education are now operated by the Karen Education and Culture Department (KECD), whose enrollment has tripled and whose students include thousands of non-Karen families taking refuge beyond the regime’s reach. 

Hospitals and clinics are under the Kawthoolei Department of Health and Welfare. Crime is dealt with by the Karen National Police Force, and the Kawthoolei Forestry Department regulates timber use. 

The KNU is currently scrambling to recruit qualified administrators of various technical specialties to govern its vastly expanded jurisdictions. It is a big leap from a shadow government in exile to a new national authority with administrative responsibilities to as many as three million citizens. 

Prior to 2021, these liberated areas were narrow and far apart, but since then they have become the norm in Kawthoolei, with only Hpa-an District still dominated by external forces. 

Ironically, the 2021 coup created conditions under which the liberated borderlands are favored economically vis-à-vis the rest of Myanmar for the first time in history. In KNU-controlled areas, the stable Thai baht is progressively displacing the shrinking Myanmar kyat. This allows the Karen to carry on trade with Thailand without any currency-related transaction costs. That trade is mostly informal at present, but already generates some customs revenue for the KNU. 

The loss of the kyat’s purchasing power and the resulting shortages of products are felt very little behind Karen lines where Thai currency and products proliferate. Whenever the KNU manages to gain solid control of the formal border crossings, the customs revenues promise to vastly improve funding for government services and programs. 

After the war, the economic reorientation from Myanmar toward Thailand may prove enduring. 

The KNU is not making the same sort of leapfrog military progress that the Kachin and Arakan armies are achieving in mid-2024. Rather, it is doing its part to wear down the regime’s dwindling resources, which allows others to exploit that weakness.

The Karen have achieved notable breakthroughs, such as the capture of towns, though progress is slow and not always linear. Perhaps their greatest contribution to the Spring Revolution at the moment is the destruction they are wreaking on the regime’s “national level” armored column on the Asia Highway.

However that ends, it will leave the regime further depleted, at which point advances in Kawthoolei are likely to catch up to those shown by the northern and western allies. 

The presence of thousands of Burmese-speaking soldiers in the Karen army units has created an inter-ethnic bond and a level of mutual respect that didn’t exist prior to the coup. Karen leaders initially regarded external volunteers as potential spies and poor soldier material, but some of the most effective Karen battalions are made up of the outsiders who came to fight. They eat and sleep, fight and die and win together. Burman soldiers answer to ethnic officers. Some of them are learning the language. 

When the regime falls, many of these guest soldiers will return to their homes in the big cities or central Myanmar, and take that acquired respect home with them. Others will stay in their adopted homeland. 

The KNU’s official position supports membership in a new federal union based on equality. If that happens, these wartime connections will facilitate integration into the new union. 


Saw Htee Cher has been an international humanitarian aid worker in Myanmar both before and after the 2021 coup d’état, starting under the Thein Sein administration in 2011. He writes Burma Coup Resistance Notes.

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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