Photo from Karen Information Center
A hastily assembled refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand, where some ten thousand people, according to Thai authorities and NGOs, have fled to escape the violence today just across the border in Myawaddi.
Sunday was the first election in twenty years in Burma, but the day’s programming on the state run television network ranged from golfing tips to hair style shows, with intermittent ads featuring Burmese pop stars encouraging the people of Burma to go to the polls, and bring in their new country, and vote. There was no coverage of the actual election process other than footage that was smuggled out by foreign journalists. Most news reports called it a “quiet day” with little activity, low voter turnout, and generally not a whole lot to report.
But that was a very different kind of day from what many people in Burma experienced. Reports from around the country reported election fraud, with intimidation of voters, denying voters the right to vote, and forcing voters to vote for the military’s own party comprising the core of the complaints.
Unrest was particularly great in the ethnic states. Tensions have increased throughout Burma, but the election infractions were most rampant in the ethnic regions, where hundreds of thousands of people were denied the right to vote, others who were paid to register to vote as long as they guaranteed their vote would be made for the military’s party.
This, combined with the military pressure on the ethnic armed groups to join the Burmese military to give up their arms, has effectively ended ceasefire agreements between three major ethnic armies the Burmese military. These groups have instead joined forces, and a coalition has formed between five ethnic armies who now have signed a contract to defend each other politically and militarily if attacked by the Burmese army. Forcing the hand of these ethnic groups could possibly be the tragic flaw in the Burmese military’s plan to sew up a transformation of their military dictatorship into the image of a democracy. The ethnic groups have had long standing disagreements with each other, but all now view their common enemy as the Burmese military.
Soon after the polls closed yesterday afternoon, the biggest strike to date was made by a former ceasefire group a few kilometers from here, in the town of Myawaddy, the town across the border from where I’ve been posted in Thailand, Mae Sot. Myawaddy is the biggest import export exchange point along the Burmese border.
For the first time in 30 years. a faction of the DKBA, or Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, took the town of Myawaddy from the Burmese military in a silent coup.
On Saturday night, they joined the main DKBA group in the sugar cane fields just south of town, and just before daybreak came into Myawaddy, took over the police station, the border checkpoints, the polling stations and the military intelligence office, which is the communications center for the Burmese military.
“They [Burmese army] announced that they will shoot people who don’t vote [in today’s elections], so people called on us to seize the town,” said the rebel group’s commander, Brigadier General Nha Kam We.
Most of the DKBA troops recently returned from military training in Nawpydaw, the new capital city of Burma, as part of their new role as Border Guard Forces for the Burmese military. But a brigade under the leadership of Na Kah Mweh, refused to join the Border Guard Force.
Despite threats against them, individuals from other DKBA battalions have also defected from their posts and joined the uprising. Na Kah Mweh sees himself as a patriot. He has no interest in joining the Burmese military, who he still views as their greatest enemy. Instead, he and his troops have realigned themselves with the Karen National Union, the supervising organization of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which DKBA broke off from almost twenty years ago. The Burmese Army has until now been extremely successful in using “divide and conquer” methods to deal with the ethnic groups. That split appears now to be over as the forces are uniting in fighting against the Burmese military.
By mid morning on Monday, some shelling made its way over the Thai border by the Friendship Bridge checkpoint, followed by a steady stream of people who began to cross into Thailand by boat, after being told by the DKBA soldiers that a the Burmese military were planning a major counter-offensive. The Thai authorities and NGO’s assembled a camp to house the refugees between the border and Mae Sot. At last count, over 10,000 people had made their way out of the town, with no sign of letting up. By evening parts of Myawaddy were reported to have been set on fire. By Monday night, it was reported that the SPDC was dispatching helicopters. What the helicopters contained – whether troops or explosives– wasn’t clear.
What is clear is that the new coalition among the ethnic groups has begun to test itself against the Burmese military.