Cross-border transits between Thailand and Myanmar are being disrupted by ongoing clashes between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the military in Myawaddy. The fighting, which has seen the most serious clashes in eastern Myanmar since 2012, has escalated during September and is likely to continue. The military is fundamentally opposed to several key rebel demands and its political influence means that a nationwide peace agreement currently under negotiation for October 2014 is likely to be delayed, making renewed clashes and operational disruption possible.
The latest clashes erupted on 26 September when DKBA rebels detained eight government soldiers and police officers and injured two soldiers in the course of a firefight in Yepu village, Kyaikmayaw, located in Mon State. The fighting continued sporadically through to 28 September and spread to the outskirts of the Myawaddy border town in Karen State, with several hours of heavy fighting involving rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire prompting local residents to flee their homes. Unconfirmed reports say that at least 10 people on both sides were killed during the fighting. The violence was preceded by a series of smaller-scale confrontations between the military and regional rebel groups that claimed at least two lives in Mon and Karen States between 9 and 18 September.
The recent clashes have had an immediate impact on commercial operations in the region. Fighting blocked the Asia Highway running through Myawaddy into Thailand’s Mae Sot and forced Thai authorities to close the border crossing after the bridge linking the two countries was blocked by the Myanmar army. Several mortar shells were reported to have also hit a golf course in Myawaddy, located around 3 km from the border crossing, although no injuries were reported. Thai suppliers in Mae Sot said many customers had cancelled previously placed orders due to the insecurity and blocked border, and it was unclear when cargo transits would be allowed to resume.
The heavy fighting coincides with the latest round of peace talks between the government and ethnic rebel groups between 22 and 28 September. At least 14 rebel groups remain actively engaged against the Myanmar army and are currently excluded from the talks, and smaller groups in particular have expressed scepticism over the army’s willingness to sign a ceasefire meeting their demands. The military has not been formally involved in the peace negotiations, but its dominant position within the national government means it can influence and obstruct terms it considers unsuitable. It has repeatedly rejected key demands by rebel groups, including the creation of a federal army and a federal union for Myanmar, even though the government has made key concessions to rebels, including agreeing to work towards a “federal system,” in its latest draft of the agreement.
The military has been accused of acting autonomously from parts of the central government and using severe force against rebel groups in recent years, undermining long-term prospects for peaceful negotiations. Its position is likely to obstruct the signing of a nationwide peace agreement by the end of October 2014, perpetuating ongoing instability. The October deadline is the latest objective set by the government to establish a framework for peace, although this has been repeatedly delayed during past negotiations since November 2013. In the course of 2014, clashes have intensified ahead of attempts to negotiate; in April 2014, fighting ahead of a round of peace talks between the government and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) displaced at least 300 people from U Yang and Nam Hka to Man Qin Gyi. Fighting spread to Shan State’s Pangsai Township days later, even as peace talks continued. Border crossings and trade routes in Kachin, Shan and Karen States will remain particularly vulnerable to renewed violence. In southern Shan State, the heavily armed United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army remain capable of undermining state control of the Tachilek border crossing, while KNU and DKBA will seek to regain control over Myawaddy. Rebel groups have also attacked foreign assets associated with government-contracted infrastructure projects, such as a Chinese-backed dam project in Kunlong, Shan State, which killed two contractors and a Myanmarese soldier in December 2013. A continuing escalation of tensions between the military and rebel groups in Mon and Karen States and the military’s likely obstruction of a ceasefire and the signing of a peace agreement on rebel terms next month will increase the likelihood of similar attacks in the coming months.