The ethnic Karenni Army (KA) marked the 73rd anniversary of its founding Tuesday vowing to “fight to the end” to rid Myanmar of its military dictatorship and create a federal union with like-minded groups in the multi-ethnic country.
The KA is one of at least 16 ethnic armed organizations thought to be active in Myanmar, a country of 54 million people with 135 official ethnic groups. The insurgent groups control territory along Myanmar’s borders with Bangladesh, China, India, and Thailand. Their histories – and grievances with the national military – stretch back to when the then Burma gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
“We were once a separate state but came under the rule of Burmese dictators,” KA leader Col. Phone Naing told a ceremony in in territory in Kayah state it controls along the border with Thailand, referring to the junta that has led Myanmar for nearly 50 of the country’s 73 years of independence.
“Under their rule, everyone knows how we have suffered bullying and oppression. The world knows. The reason for the formation of KA was to free ourselves from that situation and live in peace.”
Phone Naing said that the Karenni had always been able to overcome military invaders in the past and would do so again with the current junta, which seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government in a Feb. 1 coup.
The KA, the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) with a force estimated at 1,500 troops, was joined by representatives of KA allied groups and members of the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
The KNPP urged its military wing to stay dedicated to the goal of forming a federal democratic union in Myanmar along with allied groups.
Collaboration between anti-junta movements made up of ethnic majority Bamars and longstanding ethnic armies, including military training in remote regions, has enabled opponents of the military regime to inflict casualties on better armed junta troops and sustain opposition to the coup, analysts say.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service after Tuesday’s ceremony, a CDM police officer who joined the KA after the Feb. 1 coup said nothing would deter the ethnic army from its fight against the military regime.
“For more than 70 years, we have been fighting to regain a Karenni state,” said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Together with the Karenni people, we will fight together to the end.”
A young KA soldier told RFA that a federal union is the only way to ensure adequate representation for Myanmar’s many indigenous groups.
“Only through such a system would we be able to protect our basic rights and achieve equality,” he said.
“We have made our decision to fight until the end to get rid of the military dictatorship.”
The KNPP signed a regional state-level ceasefire agreement on March 7, 2012 under previous President Thein Sein’s military-affiliated civilian government, but has yet to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that 10 other ethnic parties have signed beginning in 2015.
The 10 rebel groups that signed the NCA suggested in June that the deal—inked in the presence of international observers and Myanmar’s highest legislature—remains in place, despite an already flailing peace process that was all but destroyed by the unpopular junta’s coup. However, they say they will not pursue talks with the military, which they view as having stolen power from the country’s democratically elected government.
Kayah state was relatively free of fighting until late May, when the military launched an offensive in the region. There are now daily clashes between junta troops and Karenni forces in the state’s Demawso, Phrusoe and Mobye townships, as well as in Phekone township on the border with southern Shan state.
An activist who declined to be named for safety reasons recently told RFA that around 1,000 refugees have fled to Karenni refugee camps on the border with Thailand since the last round of largescale clashes in the region, although he said that many more are living with close relatives or in the jungle to avoid the fighting.
“There are a lot of people left in the jungles since the last big clashes,” he said, adding that many are living in makeshift camps there because they “don’t dare return home.”
“Others have no home to return to. Some are staying in the forests because their families are separated. Some did not return because their loved ones were killed during the fighting.”
RFA has documented that more than 170,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Kayah state in the more than six months since the coup.
They join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armies who were already counted as IDPs at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
The junta says a landslide victory by the NLD in the country’s November 2020 general election was the result of voter fraud, but has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed widespread protests, killing 999 people and arresting 5,712 since the coup, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country that have led to fierce battles with several local militias.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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