Soldiers from the Kayin State Border Guard Force parade a ceremony in August 2019. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)
Soldiers from the Kayin State Border Guard Force, now renamed as the Karen National Army, parade a ceremony in August 2019. (Frontier)

In the Kayin BGF debacle, the buck stops with the Tatmadaw

The showdown over the Shwe Kokko project should prompt the military to review its decades-old approach to ethnic armed groups.


This story is from the January 28 issue of Frontier

The confrontation and tensions that have soured the relationship between the Tatmadaw and its Kayin State Border Guard Force headed by Colonel Saw Chit Thu have been making headlines. Formerly known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which split from the Karen National Union in 1994, the group became a BGF under Tatmadaw command in 2010. Its dispute with the Tatmadaw is the most serious in the 26 years since it broke away from the KNU and the decade since it transformed into a BGF.

Amid this crisis, it’s worth looking back at the history of the Kayin State BGF and asking whether the Tatmadaw can sustainably resolve the situation without fundamentally changing its approach to ethnic armed groups.

The Kayin State BGF is composed of troops who were formerly with the Karen National Liberation Army, armed wing of the KNU. The DKBA broke away from the KNLA in 1994 after a dispute with its leaders, most of whom are Christians. It worked closely with military intelligence in the Tatmadaw operation that led to the seizure of the KNU’s headquarters at Manerplaw, near the border with Thailand, in January 1995. From its base at Myaing Gyi Ngu, the DKBA controlled territory along the border with Thailand and established businesses to generate the revenue needed to support its troops. 

After the former military government promulgated the 2008 Constitution, which gave the Tatmadaw significant political powers, it began pressuring ethnic armed groups that had signed ceasefire agreements to transform into either BGFs or people’s militia outfits. 

Many ethnic armed groups, including the United Wa State Army, Mongla-based National Democratic Alliance Army, and Kachin Independence Army, refused. The DKBA and the New Democratic Army-Kachin, commanded by Zakhung Ting Ying, one of four factions that split from the Communist Party of Burma in early 1989, were among those that agreed to transform into BGFs.

The Pa-O National Organisation’s armed wing and some other ethnic armed groups, included one headed by Lasang Aung Wa that had split from the KIA, agreed to become people’s militias. 

However, within the DKBA there was opposition to transforming into a BGF. Some members opposed a Tatmadaw demand that long-term members of the DKBA could not be part of the BGF and must retire. Members of DKBA Division 5, led by Saw La Pwe ­– better known as Bo Nakhan Hmwe (Captain Whiskers) – split from the DKBA to form the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, one of the eight groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015 (alongside the KNU).

NDA-K leader Zakhung Ting Ying accepted the group’s transformation into a BGF despite not being permitted to join it, because the involvement of his son and relatives meant he could continue to exert influence over the group and also continue his lucrative business interests. At the time, he also worried that the NDA-K might be attacked by the KIA if it didn’t become a BGF.

After the DKBA became a BGF, its leaders began expanding their business activities, many of which were illegal. They included establishing jetties on the Thaung Yin River near the border town of Myawaddy, collecting a tax on goods and people crossing the border, smuggling vehicles and fuel, and operating casinos. These activities enriched BGF leaders, who invested heavily in projects in the state capital, Hpa-an. As the leader of the BGF, Chit Thu became a person of considerable influence in the border area.

When the Thai authorities halted illegal exports of fuel to Myanmar via a pipeline across the Thaung Yin River in 2016, Chit Thu responded by issuing an ultimatum to shut down all illegal jetties under BGF control and said the Thai side would be responsible for the consequences. The Thai authorities gave in and re-opened the pipeline.

The current dispute centres on the BGF’s involvement, through its Chit Linn Myaing company, in a partnership with Bangkok-based Yatai International, a company owned by ethnic Chinese businesspeople, in the massive Yatai New City project at Shwe Kokko, on the border about 20 kilometres north of Myawaddy.

The Chinese company involved in the project says it will involve an investment of US$15 billion and its plan includes hotels, housing, shopping centres, casinos and even an airport. However, the project, which has not been approved by the Union government, has generated notoriety in Myanmar and abroad. 

In June 2020, the government launched an investigation headed by the deputy minister of the Office of the Union Government, U Tin Myint, who sought cooperation from the Tatmadaw because of the involvement of the BGF.

After the investigation team submitted its report to the cabinet, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay told a news conference on January 8 that the project raised issues that were complex and sensitive.

Zaw Htay said any action against the project and those involved would need to be in line with the law. The government was cooperating with the Tatmadaw to bring the project under the control of the authorities and through a legal framework that ensured the companies involved do not suffer financial losses.

Tatmadaw pressure on the BGF over the Shwe Kokko project resulted in three of its leaders – Chit Thu, Major Saw Mote Thone and Major Saw Tin Win – being summoned to the military’s South-East Command headquarters in the Mon State capital Mawlamyine and instructing them to resign of their own volition. 

Mote Thone submitted his resignation at the January 9 meeting, but Chit Thu and Tin Win refused.

However, following a meeting with BGF officers and the DKBA on January 14 both Chit Thu and Tin Win submitted their resignations. There was a catch, though. All the officers, warrant officers and corporals from the 13 BGF battalions agreed that if the Tatmadaw accepted the resignations from the leaders, they would also quit being a BGF under the Tatmadaw and return to being a ceasefire group.

In attempt to defuse the situation, a Tatmadaw delegation that included Lieutenant-General Aung Soe, chief of the Bureau of Special Operations 4, and the head of South-East Command travelled to Myaing Gyi Ngu to negotiate with BGF leaders. Also at the meeting were former DKBA leaders more senior to Chit Thu who are also members of the BGF’s advisory group. No BGF leaders accepted the pressure exerted on Chit Thu and the two majors to resign. The Tatmadaw is yet to accept the resignation of the BGF officers and has urged them to rethink their decisions. This means that the problem remains unresolved.

Under military rule, the Tatmadaw accepted factions that broke away from ethnic armed groups and were prepared to cooperate with it ­– in several cases, it wooed them into defecting. The Tatmadaw allowed them to retain their weapons and support it in fighting against the group from which they had split.

The breakaway groups have engaged in a range of illegal activities to generate revenue, including drug trafficking, extortion and illegal trading. The Tatmadaw turns a blind eye to such activities by BGFs and people’s militias for political or strategic reasons. Tatmadaw officers assigned to border areas also receive a share from the proceeds of these illegal activities. It is little wonder that the BGF, which transformed from the DKBA and helped the Tatmadaw in its campaign against the KNU, should become involved in illegal business activity.

On the other hand, the privileged status that the Tatmadaw enjoys under the constitution ensures that it operates independently from the government. Neither the government nor the hluttaws can audit spending by the Ministry of Defence. The Tatmadaw also owns many large companies, making its demands on the Kayin BGF look hypocritical. 

Given the above, it is clear that moves by the Tatmadaw to forbid BGFs and militias from engaging in business activities and demanding the resignation of their leaders will not succeed. The Tatmadaw should instead review its policy of using ethnic armed groups to fight other ethnic armed groups. It only leads to the creation of more armed groups.

Problems involving civil conflict and ethnic armed groups can only be solved by political means. That is the only way these issues, including this one involving the Kayin State BGF and the Tatmadaw, can be handled effectively.

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