Fighting Continues Between Government Troops and Karen Rebels in Myanmar

Myanmar army troops opened fire on soldiers from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) on Friday in the southern part of the country, continuing the hostilities that began there on July 2 and forcing the reclosure of sections of a major roadway, an ethnic military official said.

“The government army opened fire on us with heavy weapons last night and this morning,” said Brigadier General Kyaw Thet of the DKBA. “We didn’t fight them back. Their ground troops attacked us a few hours ago, and we fought them back this time. We mostly are withdrawing our troops because we don’t want people to get into trouble because of fighting,”

Although there were no reports of casualties from the latest outbreak of hostilities, stretches of the Asia Highway, which links Myanmar to Thailand via a border crossing at Myawaddy in Kayin state, were temporarily shut down again.

A report by the Democratic Voice of Burma, however, said a route connecting the towns of Kawkareit and Myawaddy in Kayin was now accessible between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., citing Major Nang Maung Zaw of the ethnic Karen Border Guard Force as the source.

Clashes between the DKBA and government troops broke out just over a week ago leading to an exchange of gunfire after government troops demanded that the DKBA remove a security and toll station in Kawkareik township near the Thai border. Clashes in four areas along the Asia Highway on Monday closed down some sections of the thoroughfare.

According to Myanmar state media, 29 battles have been fought in the region since July 2.

DKBA and government officials met on Tuesday to try to end the hostilities with representatives from the Karen National Union (KNU) serving as mediators.

Twenty-five groups from the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) released a statement saying that the Asia Highway should be reopened after getting agreements on peace from the parties involved.

Free and fair elections?

The government is trying to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement NCA with the country’s armed ethnic groups to end decades of civil war before parliamentary elections are held on November 8.

In his monthly radio speech on Thursday, President Thein Sein said he would strive to hold free and fair elections and that constitutional reform would be achievable through political dialogue after an NCA had been signed.

“The constitution must be appropriate for the current period,” he said. “Depending on the political situation, the constitution should be amended. Charter change will become through political dialogue.”

Although Thein Sein has been pushing for a deal to be signed before the elections, some ethnic leaders doubt it will be achieved by the time voters go to the polls.

Naing Han Thar, head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) coalition of 16 armed ethnic groups that are involved in the peace talks, told RFA that it would be difficult for all the ethnic parties involved to accept the document.

The government wants to exclude three ethnic groups with which it is still at odds because of ongoing military clashes in northeastern Shan state—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

“But we want them to be with us when we sign the final NCA and we will try to include them,” Naing Han Thar said.

He also said it would be difficult to create a democratic federal union, which the armed ethnic groups want, because military members of parliament recently rejected efforts to amend the constitution.

“It means we still have central control,” he said.

Naing Han Thar said he had heard that a government technical team would discuss the issue with the NCCT next week, and that a special 15-member ethnic negotiations team, formed last month, had tentative plans to hold a meeting in the commercial capital Yangon during the third week of August.

Red flag on the elections

On June 25, parliament had rejected amendments to the country’s 2008 junta-drafted constitution that would have removed the effective veto on legislative reform that military members of parliament (MPs) hold.

Parliament also voted down an amendment that would have changed eligibility requirements that effectively bar opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Although the United States welcomed Myanmar’s announcement that it would hold the elections on November 8, Joseph Crowley, a congressman who is vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and a prominent voice on Myanmar, warned that the veto power of military MPs raised a red flag on the elections.

“Burma’s military has in effect created an entirely separate ballot box in which they reserve every single vote for a constitutional veto-wielding bloc in parliament, allowing them to maintain a grip on power,” he said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“These issues damage the freeness, fairness and credibility of the election, and I urge that they be quickly addressed,” the statement said.

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell on Friday also criticized the government for blocking the constitutional changes.

He said the United States should not provide trade benefits to Myanmar until the elections which would indicate the state of political reform in the developing country.

Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.