Myanmar strife keeps getting worse

Myanmar strife keeps getting worse

Ethnic minority Karen troops are seen after setting fire to a building inside a Myanmar army outpost near the Thai border, which is seen from the Thai side on the Thanlwin, also known as Salween. (Photo: Reuters)
Ethnic minority Karen troops are seen after setting fire to a building inside a Myanmar army outpost near the Thai border, which is seen from the Thai side on the Thanlwin, also known as Salween. (Photo: Reuters)

The sour relationship between Myanmar and Asean might have forced the Tatmadaw -- a term for the Myanmar junta government -- to go soft and release hundreds of political prisoners from Insein prison, in a bid perceived as an attempt to extend an olive branch to the regional bloc.

Yet the situation between the Myanmar military and ethnic insurgent groups along the Salween River at the Thailand-Myanmar border in Mae Hong Son remains volatile as it has been during the past six months since the putsch in February.

On Oct 12, the media reported that Myanmar army officers at Jok Yaarmy base by the Salween looted a cargo vessel of villagers who had brought goods from Thailand's Mae Sam Laep to Ban Mae Nuta in Myanmar's Karen State. Looting barges in the Salween River has happened before.

The bank of the Salween in Karen State is littered with military bases belonging to either the Karen National Union (KNU) or the Myanmar army. In some areas, it is subject to the control of the KNU since residents on both sides belong to a Karen community.

Myanmar army soldiers found themselves in a predicament recently after the KNU became stronger and more determined, then piled up pressure to root them out of the banks of the Salween River. The KNU managed to cut off logistic routes, blocking the flow of food and basic supplies.

Residents who witnessed the looting of the vessel said that while the vessel was cruising towards the Mae Kho Rapids closer to Jok Ya army base, several shots were heard to force the vessel to come to shore. With no other choice, and since the vessel was in the middle of a deep channel toward the Karen State, while the Thai side was littered with unnavigable boulders, the driver had to bring the vessel ashore.

As it reached shore, 12 Myanmar army officers unloaded goods from the vessel. They were looking for rice, but there was none in the boat. Instead, they could only lay their hands on instant noodles and canned fish. The captain and the vessel were allowed to travel on.

After the news broke, the Thai 36th Ranger Forces Regiment promptly said on its Facebook page that the looting was "fake news", after Thai media picked up the story. The Facebook post said the Myanmar army was buying goods from the people. But due to some misunderstanding regarding payment, the Myanmar army officers decided to take the goods to their barracks first.

The Mae Sariang Radio Thailand Facebook page posted the explanation of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment and it garnered quite some attention.

Many people expressed disbelief at the explanation of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment and hurled criticism at the Thai army. They asked why it was acting as a mouthpiece for the Myanmar army.

Eventually, the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment's Facebook page and the Mae Sariang Radio Thailand page decided to pull the plug by deleting the hotly debated posts.

The questionable stance of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment sheds light on the close relationship between the Thai army and the Myanmar army.

If the Thai army had instead reported that "we have not yet received the reports and are investigating the situation" or "the Myanmar army has offered its explanation posted via the Thai army's page," it would not have looked so outrageous.

But as soon as the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment's page asserted that "it was only a matter of misunderstanding" and offered an excuse to help out their Myanmar counterparts, the main target of criticism instantly shifted to the Thai army.

The rants and criticisms wielded by local people were echoed in pandemonium across the Salween River basin. It was not surprising that both the pages of the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment 36 and the Mae Sariang Radio Thailand were deleted.

Even as the Tatmadaw has become a lame duck in the world and Asean is giving them the cold shoulder, Myanmar still has friends on the other side of the Salween River.

High-ranking soldiers of the Tatmadaw and the Thai army have been companions in arms. It is an open secret that Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar army commander and coup maker, has forged close ties with leaders of the Thai Army through his relationship with the late Privy Councillor Gen Prem Tinsulanonda who adopted Min Aung Hlaing as his own child.

The influence of the relationships between leaders of the two armies has passed down to the forces deployed along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

In March 2021, the Thai army allowed the transportation of 700 sacks of rice plus other supplies to be shipped to the Myanmar army from Thailand via the Mae Sot border checkpoint in Tak province.

They were loaded into boats at Mae Sam Laep, Mae Hong Son, getting ready to be shipped to the Myanmar army bases along the Salween. But as news about this shipment of supplies broke, the shipment was stalled. Myanmar soldiers were left hungry.

The KNU's blockade of supply routes in Karen State has further outraged the Myanmar army. They became even more furious after the supplies from Thailand were exposed. This has triggered air raids to bomb the KNU's Brigade 5 Headquarters in Day Pu No causing a displacement of over 70,000 villagers to run for their lives and live in the forest. Thousands of them have crossed the Salween to seek refuge in Thailand.

The 36th Ranger Forces Regiment continues to receive much criticism as it has set up checkpoints to tightly control the transport of humanitarian relief while barring access to the press. Meanwhile, efforts were made to rush the aggrieved and scared villagers to return to Karen State even though it was unsafe.

The Salween River's bank at the Thai border is situated amid a complicated power structure and home to forces from various factions: the Myanmar army, the KNU and the BGF (Border Guard Forces set up by the Myanmar army). Even on the Thai side, there are forces from various agencies, the military, the police and the border patrol police as well as National Park officers.

Meanwhile, most residents on both sides of the Salween River are traditional Karens. Since the Thai state has drawn up the demarcation line marking the border and has annexed land which used to belong to the ethnic Karens, any policy imposed must be sensitive and take into account the feeling of the native people, not dissimilar to the situation in Thailand's deep South.

Any project pushed to uphold the political interest or vested interest of certain groups at the expense of local people including the diversion of the Yuam-Salween Rivers to the Chao Phraya River will only add fuel to the fire.

They could be viewed as an attempt to pave the way for interference and to serve the interest of the Myanmar army.

The Thai state's failure in the southern border provinces is an unfinished story of bloodshed. It could be attributed to a lack of understanding of the native people including Malay Muslims.

The Thai army's affinity with the Myanmar army is unprecedented. But such close relationships between individuals or between the armies should take a back seat to the national interest.

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

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