Myanmar Military Reoccupies Myawaddy Base as Karen Rebels Withdraw

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Myanmar Military Reoccupies Myawaddy Base as Karen Rebels Withdraw

The Karen National Union said that its forces were pulling back from the important border hub to avoid harm to the local population.

Myanmar Military Reoccupies Myawaddy Base as Karen Rebels Withdraw

This photo shows a general view of a checkpoint near the 1st Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Myawaddy district in eastern Myanmar, on Friday, April 12, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Myanmar soldiers have reoccupied their headquarters in the city of Myawaddy on the Thai border, after the withdrawal of the ethnic Karen resistance fighters that overran the base earlier this month.

Fighting has been raging around Myawaddy in Kayin (Karen) State for several weeks, as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and its allies have gone on the attack against the forces of the military regime. On April 11, the Karen National Union (KNU), the KNLA’s political wing, claimed that it had captured the headquarters of Infantry Battalion 275, the main military base in Myawaddy.

However, the junta forces did not surrender, withdrawing to an area around the No. 2 Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, which connects Myawaddy with the Thai town of Mae Sot. Meanwhile, the armed forces have called in reinforcements from Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin State, and launched artillery and air strikes in a bid to stave off another humiliating defeat.

According to local media reports, the KNLA has now chosen to withdraw, citing the potential harm to local civilians and their property from the ongoing fighting. The air and artillery strikes have already prompted an estimated 3,000 people to flee across the border into Thailand, as well as reportedly killing seven civilians.

“Currently, we have pulled back slightly from the area around Bridge No. 2, where we were engaging the junta troops. The junta’s frequent airstrikes have raised concerns about the safety of the local people,” KNU spokesperson Padoh Saw Kale Say told the Karen Information Center, a local media organization. “Taking a step back allows us to assess our military situation more carefully.”

The spokesperson said that the withdrawal began in the early hours of April 21. As a result, junta troops yesterday reoccupied the Infantry Battalion 275 headquarters in Myawaddy. The Irrawaddy yesterday published photos of regime troops raising the Myanmar flag at the base.

A report in the Karen News stated that Myawaddy Township as a whole remains largely under KNU control, but that due to airstrikes and “ongoing complexities in the town,” plans to set up a new “people’s administration” have been put off for the time being.

According to some reports, the junta’s recapture of the headquarters was aided by the mercenary Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), which controls a swath of territory to the north of the town. Earlier this year, the BGF announced its break with the Myanmar military and rebranded itself as the Karen National Army (KNA). Led by Col. Saw Chit Thu, who broke from the KNU in the mid-1990s, the KNA maintains a formidable force of 7,000 soldiers armed with weapons including anti-tank rockets and drones, and has presided over the development of massive criminal scam operations that have swelled as China has cracked down on similar operations based along its own border with Myanmar.

According to the United States Institute for Peace, the BGF distanced itself from the junta not out of any principle but simply “to better secure [its] criminal empires.” While it may not longer view the military junta as an able backer, the prospect of a KNU takeover of Myawaddy might be much worse for its longer-term fortunes, incentivizing it to prevent a total collapse of the military position in eastern Kayin State.

In any event, this is clearly not the end of the battle for Myawaddy. The center of the conflict appears to have shifted to the Dawna mountains, which run north-south, separating Myawaddy and its surrounding areas from the town of Kawkareik. According to The Irrawaddy, as many as 1,000 junta troops are now seeking to make their way across the Dawna mountain range from Kawkareik to relieve Myawaddy. The KNU and its allies withdrew from Kawkareik last week, and are now concentrating their attacks on the junta reinforcements in order to prevent their arrival in Myawaddy, or weaken them ahead of their arrival there.

“Now, both sides are going head to head near the Dawna mountains,” the news outlet quoted Col. Saw Nal Dar Htoo of KNU’s Brigade 6 as saying.

As the fighting around Myawaddy lulled yesterday, Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara paid a visit to the border at Mae Sot, in place of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, during which he expressed the government’s willingness to mediate the current conflict.

“Some initial discussions have taken place with different groups, including the Myanmar government and the Myawaddy faction,” Parnpree told reporters in Mae Sot, BenarNews reported. “They haven’t had the time to discuss with us yet, but they are aware that we are ready to act as a mediator and to comprehensively resolve Myanmar’s issues to restore peace quickly.”

On Monday, Parnpree was appointed by the prime minister as chairman of a special government committee to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, which, with the battle for Myawaddy, threatens to wash over the border into Thailand.

The developments around Myawaddy also shine a light on the KNA’s response to the fast-moving situation, and its positioning between the junta and the resistance. Leaving aside its involvement in online scam operations involving the trafficking and victimization of tens of thousands of people, the KNA’s role in the military’s recapture of Myawaddy make it obvious that the organization is no friend to either the KNU or the broader resistance movement. So far, the KNA has not intervened directly in Myanmar’s post-coup conflict, but recent developments suggest that sooner or later it will play an important role in determining the balance of power in southeastern Myanmar.