Soldiers of the Kayin State Border Guard Force, now renamed as parade in a ceremony at Shwe Kokko to mark the group’s ninth anniversary in 2019. (Frontier)

Into the lion’s den: The failed attack on Shwe Kokko

The assault on a criminal hub connected to the junta-aligned Kayin BGF was celebrated on social media, but on the ground it was a devastating defeat that has deepened divisions within the Karen resistance.


Under the watchful eye of Thai soldiers, hundreds of refugees carrying bundles of belongings on their heads assembled on the border on April 9 and waded through the shallow waters of the Moei River back to Myanmar.

“Make groups of 50 and register here to cross,” a Burmese interpreter for the Thai military bellowed through a megaphone.

As they made their way across the river, known as the Thaung Yin in Burmese, a few dozen refugees appealed to Thai authorities to let them stay until fighting in Myanmar stopped completely.

Around 10,000 people – Myanmar, Chinese, Thais and others – reportedly fled across the border near Mae Sot, Thailand after a Myanmar resistance group known as the Lion Battalion launched an assault on the military-aligned Kayin State Border Guard Force at their Shwe Kokko headquarters.

The Lion Battalion operates under the Kawthoolei Army, which like the BGF, is a splinter group of the Karen National Union, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed group. The clashes snowballed, dragging in other Kawthoolei Army troops, members of the KNU’s main armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army and the Myanmar military.

While the incident was celebrated on social media as a daring assault on the BGF and military’s illegal business interests, Frontier’s interviews instead paint a picture of a rogue, revenge-inspired attack that resulted in many resistance casualties and increased tensions between the different Karen armed groups.

While the clashes prompted wealthy business owners and BGF leaders to move to temporary apartments in Mae Sot or take taxis to Bangkok, thousands of ordinary workers and residents camped on the border, squatting in buffalo and goat farms.

Among them was Ma Aye Mon*, a restaurant worker in Shwe Kokko. Once a non-descript village mostly known for cattle smuggling, Shwe Kokko has been turned into a “new city” flush with casinos through a partnership between the militia group and Yatai International, a company run by a Chinese fugitive. Evidence has emerged that the town has become a hub for cyber scams and forced labour.

“I hate that town,” Aye Mon told Frontier. But her Chinese employer, who told her to flee the fighting in early April, was now demanding that she return to work.

“I really want to see this town fall,” said Aye Mon. “I wish Eh Say Wah [commander of the Lion Battalion] and the People’s Defence Forces could take this city. It has destroyed so many young lives. I have seen so many young people there sink into drugs and crime.”

Divisions within the Karen resistance

Given Shwe Kokko’s infamous reputation, many cheered on the attack, but KNU leaders reacted with fury.

A Lion Battalion source told Frontier that troops from the KNLA’s Brigade 7, which claims the area of northern Myawaddy Township containing Shwe Kokko, felt compelled to come to their aid when the fighting broke out.

KNU spokesperson Saw Taw Nee condemned the Lion Battalion as “undisciplined forces with a stupid plan”.

“When a military operation is about to be launched, the commander of the territories involved must give approval. In this case the Lion Battalion and Kawthoolei Army did not inform any of the KNU officials and stubbornly persisted in their attack in KNU territory,” Saw Taw Nee said.

To make sense of the tensions, one must understand the complex splits in the KNU, some of which go back many years.

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army first split from the KNU in the 1990s, accusing the majority-Christian group of religious discrimination, before helping the military capture the KNU’s headquarters of Manerplaw. A faction of the DKBA later became the Kayin BGF, a militia directly under the military’s command, which today fights on behalf of the regime.

After the 2021 military coup, the KNU sided with the anti-junta uprising, training and arming many young resistance fighters who sought shelter in Kayin. But it also had a falling out with one of its highest-ranking commanders – Nerdah Bo Mya, former leader of the Karen National Defence Organisation, the KNU’s other main armed wing.

In 2021, Nerdah Bo Mya was put under investigation for the massacre of 25 men. He admitted to the executions, but claimed the victims were military spies, and refused to cooperate with the KNU’s proceedings, instead forming his own group, which he called the Kawthoolei Army.

Kawthoolei Army fighters attend a ceremony marking Karen Martyrs’ Day in August 2022. (Frontier)

He was joined by two post-coup resistance units – Venom Commando and the Lion Battalion – which until then had been operating under the supervision of KNLA Brigade 6.

The battalion is led by the iconic one-armed Captain Saw Eh Say Wah, who is often lionised on social media. But last year, video footage emerged of him personally overseeing the beating and execution of at least three captured prisoners during fighting over the Ukarithta outpost in southern Myawaddy Township.

When Nerdah Bo Mya announced the creation of the Kawthoolei Army, the KNU quickly condemned the move, saying he had “defied the KNU’s judicial process” and undermined the investigation into the later killings at Ukarithta as well.

However, since then, units from both groups have regularly cooperated against the common enemy, launching attacks on military forces across Kayin State, despite the occasional flare-up of tensions.

A retaliatory attack gone awry

The Kawthoolei Army said in a Facebook statement last month that it attacked Shwe Kokko because it had become a financial hub for the regime controlled by the BGF and “Chinese” criminals.

But Lion Battalion member Ko Ba La* told Frontier it was a “revenge attack”.

The unit had suffered a serious setback when its deputy commander, Ko Thiha, was taken to Mae Sot for medical treatment after being injured in fighting in February in Kyondoe town, west of Myawaddy in Kayin State.

Thai police arrested him along with spokesperson Ko Htet Nay Win and support team member Saw Phyo Lay on March 31, on the grounds that they lacked proper documents.

Ta Yoke Gyi, another fighter in the Lion Battalion, told Frontier that KNU officials tried to intervene to secure their release, but Thai authorities instead deported them to Myanmar, handing them over to the BGF on April 4.

Ba La told Frontier that Phyo Lay tried to escape that same day, and was shot dead by the BGF, while the other two captives were taken to Mawlamyine Prison in Mon State.

This incident incensed the Lion Battalion, which hastily decided to launch the attack in retaliation. Multiple sources said the day after Phyo Lay was killed, a Lion Battalion caravan of a dozen vehicles attacked the area around Shwe Kokko.

The group launched heavy attacks on BGF territory for three days, and at first, things were going well. According to Voice of America, the resistance group overran five BGF outposts. The Lion Battalion claimed to Frontier that they occupied six outposts and killed as many as 100 BGF and Tatmadaw troops, something that could not be independently verified.

But on April 8, the attack began to stall. The Lion Battalion came under fire from combined Tatmadaw and BGF units, including attack helicopters, forcing them to withdraw with heavy losses.

The battalion initially reported five of its fighters killed, but a KNLA source told Frontier that dozens remain missing, presumed captured or dead. The Lion Battalion said just before publication that at least 24 deaths have been confirmed so far.

“We lost vehicles, weapons and drones. We could only run for our lives,” a Lion Battalion survivor told Frontier, declining to elaborate on how they escaped or exactly how much equipment was lost.

KNU controversy

Further complicating the story, rumours have swirled that some KNU officials are involved in illicit business dealings connected to the BGF.

The commander of KNLA’s Brigade 7, which is headquartered close to Shwe Kokko, invited controversy when he attended a meeting with the BGF in March. He was also accused by Brigade 5 of being involved in another “new city’ project that critics warn could similarly be a hub for illegal activity.

Some local media reports even claimed that Brigade 7 soldiers helped the BGF trap the Lion Battalion troops, a charge the group denies.

“Shwe Kokko is a place where the BGF has strong forces. They [the Lion Battalion] made the wrong plan and dug their own grave, that’s all,” said a Brigade 7 official who did not want to be named. The official dodged questions about the brigade’s alleged business connections to the BGF.

On April 11, just after the assault on Shwe Kokko, Brigade 7 announced that it would not accept any Kawthoolei Army forces in its territory.

Against this backdrop, the KNU finally held its long-delayed 17th Congress. From late April to early May, it elected new leaders and removed some controversial senior officers, including the Brigade 7 commander. A high-ranking source in Brigade 5 told Frontier that managing the difficult relationship with the Kawthoolei Army will be an important task for the new leadership.

Meanwhile, the Lion Battalion is licking its wounds.

The group has suspended troop movements and is refusing to make detailed comments to the media. The new spokesperson, Ko Anyar Thar, who replaced the captured Htet Nay Win, said due to the losses suffered, the Lion Battalion is unable to return to action for now.

* indicates use of a pseudonym on request for security reasons

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