More armed Karen cease-fire groups to participate in new Three Pagodas “economic zone”
Mon 16 Feb 2009, Kyae Goe, Thurein and Blai Mon
An additional two ethnic Karen armed cease-fire groups will cooperate in an “economic development zone” to be operated by a third Karen group near Three Pagodas Pass, on the Thai-Burma border.
According to sources in ethnic armed groups in the area, forces from the Karen Peace Front (KPF) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) will be involved. The zone is part of a tentative agreement between KNU/KNLA Peace Council (KPC) chief Brigadier General Htain Maung and the Burmese army.
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“The economic project has the name of the KPC,” a KPF officer in Three Pagodas told IMNA. “But their group is not large enough to control the whole area. So Karens and Karens will collaborate.” A businessman close to the KPF and KPC in Three Pagodas agreed, and said both the KPF and DKBA Battalion No. 907 would be providing security for the project. Other ceasefire sources said that DKBA would also provide help with logistics like transportation and communications.
All three groups are breakaways from the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has been fighting successive central governments in Burma since the country achieved independence in 1948. The DKBA is the oldest and best established of the splinter groups, and left the KNU in 1994. The KPF split soon after in 1997. The KPC is a relatively recent addition to the scene, and was formed from ex-soldiers of KNLA 7th Brigade in 2007.
Full approval for the special economic zone has yet to be granted, though the KPC maintains the deal is done. “Lieutenant General Ye Myint from Military Affairs Security gave permission to open the economic zone. The KPC also requested about 100 acres to operate in. The Burmese government gave us the full amount of what we wanted.”
“[The KPC] will implement the economic zone as soon as [they] have informed the Southeast Command (SEC),” the KPC officer added. The SEC, based in Moulmein, Mon State, controls the Three Pagodas area. On February 10th, a delegation from the KPC left for discussions with the SEC in Moulmein
Negotiations in Three Pagodas began on February 7th, when seven KPC members arrived via Mae Sot, Thailand and Myawaddy. In addition to Let Gen Ye Myint, Sa Yha Pha Military Intelligence and Thai authorities were also party to the discussion.
Exact details of the agreement are sketchy, however. According to a source in the New Mon State Party (NMSP) quoted by the Irrawaddy last week, part of the agreement includes a commitment from the KPC to act as border guards for the Burmese army.
Armed ceasefire groups elsewhere in Burma are also being pressured to shift their posture and become border guards in the run-up to the 2010 elections. More than a dozen groups continue to exist since a slew of ceasefires agreed to in the 1990s, but their positions are becoming increasingly tenuous as Burma progresses along its seven-step “road map” to “disciplined democracy.” In Myawaddy, Burma’s next border crossing with Thailand to the north, the DKBA is expected to act as such a border guard force.
Other sources in Three Pagodas Pass provided less certain indications as to whether the 100 acres granted to the KPC would serve as a base for border guards. The KPC source that spoke with IMNA, for instance, declined to comment on military aspects of the agreement. And a source close to the Sa Ya Pha Military Intelligence denied that the agreement presaged anything but an economic zone.
The businessman who spoke with IMNA, however, said that the rumors in Three Pagodas involve both an economic zone and military base for border guards. The territory granted the KPC is, as some have pointed out, situated along the border to the west of Three Pagodas Town and nearly a square mile large; more than ample room for an economic zone.
The KPC has been given relative freedom to operate economically since leaving the KNU, including the right to open a transport company profiting off the lucrative trade linking Three Pagodas Pass and interior Burma via the Thanbyuzayat motorway. In September 2008, however, the group was denied the right to open a checkpoint on the Zemi River, which serves as the primary rainy-season route to Three Pagodas Pass.
A source in the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), meanwhile, said that he is worried that new KPC area will lead to tensions between the groups. The new KPC territory is closely situated to an area that has been administered by the MNLA since agreeing to a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 1995. The MNLA is the armed wing of the NMSP, which recently announced that it would neither be providing border guards nor participating in the 2010 elections.
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