Ethnic Soldiers in Eastern Myanmar See Increase in Clashes With Junta Forces

Fighting intensified in September after the shadow government called for open rebellion.
2021.10.06
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People's Defense Force soldiers aim their weapons at junta troops in Loikaw, eastern Myanmar's Kayah state, in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of People's Defense Force in Loikaw

Ethnic rebels and militiamen engaged in 265 armed clashes with Myanmar junta forces in September, killing nearly 300 national soldiers in Kayin and Kayah states, officials from the groups said Wednesday, amid an intensified effort by ethnic soldiers to resist the military regime that overthrew the elected government eight months ago.

The powerful Myanmar military ousted the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government on Feb. 1, claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud.

Fighting against military forces escalated across the nation after the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) on Sept. 7 declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule.

The move by the group of ousted NLD politicians, activists, and representatives from ethnic minority groups, sparked an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy militias and ethnic armed groups. The number of civilians displaced by the violence numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and aid workers face a humanitarian crisis.

The central committee of the Karen National Union, a political group with an armed wing, which represents the ethnic Karen people in mountainous eastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, said that the clashes fought by armed groups under its umbrella resulted in 234 deaths of junta soldiers and five ethnic troops. Ten KNU soldiers were injured as well.

Lt. Col. Saw Kalae Do of the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) 5th Brigade told RFA that 215 of the clashes occurred in the territory controlled by the brigade, with fighting occurring on an almost daily basis in September because Myanmar soldiers had become more aggressive in expending their territory and securing troop reinforcements.

“For us, we have to maintain the control of our territory, so there were shootouts between the two forces,” he said. “There were armed engagements almost every day.”

“If they hadn’t provoked us, we would not have responded,” he added.

The KNLA saw far fewer casualties from the clashes because its soldiers are familiar with the terrain and have better guerilla combat skills than national forces, Saw Kalae Do said.

National soldiers fired more than 160 rounds of heavy artillery in the brigade’s territory, injuring three civilians, he added.

In August, there were 130 armed engagements in which 118 military soldiers died and 68 others were injured, though there were no casualties among the KNLA troops, Saw Kalae Do said.

RFA could not independently confirm the number of casualties.

In neighboring Kayah state, Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF) militia engaged in at least 14 clashes with Myanmar troops in the past few months, with 40 national troops and three Karenni soldiers killed, said a KNDF official who declined to be named.

Now the fighting could intensify after national forces brought about 500 more troops into the area, the KNDF official said.

“Future fighting will depend on the actions of the military council troops,” he said. “There could be some of the biggest fighting in a month or it could cool down to the level of regular fighting, but I think there are more prospects for the former.”

Junta forces set fire to at least 55 civilian homes, killed two civilians, and critically injured two others during the September clashes, KNDF officials said, though RFA could not independently confirm the number of causalities.

RFA could not reach junta spokesman Maj. Gen Zaw Min Tun for comment.

Political analyst Than Soe Naing said fighting across Myanmar would intensify with civilians forming defense forces to fight alongside the ethnic armed groups while the volunteer People’s Defense Force, the armed wing of the National Unity Government that has declared itself to be the legitimate government of Myanmar, battle junta soldiers in central Myanmar.

“This fighting will only be the beginning,” he said. “We are heading towards a nationwide civil war. That’s why these clashes are not decisive wars. The real decisive wars are forthcoming.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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