Mon ceasefire group increases armed patrols in response to taxation by insurgents inside party territory

Tue 09 Jun 2009, Asah and Blai Mon
A recently formed Mon insurgent group is attempting to levy taxes in territory controlled by Burma’s largest Mon political party. The party has stepped up armed security in the area, which also saw two retired village officials kidnapped by the insurgents last week.

According to sources in territory controlled by the New Mon State Party (NMSP), yesterday the insurgents ordered residents of Brigade No. 3 village to pay 100,000 baht (2,900 USD). The large sum has been requested in Thai baht because NMSP territory is situated along the Thai-Burma border, though territory officially controlled by the party since a 1995 ceasefire is nominally within Burma.

“They asked for 100,000 baht, but we requested to reduce the payment to 50,000,” a local resident told IMNA. “But, if we don’t pay them how much they asked for, they will do anything to get the money. We don’t want to pay them, but they ordered us.”

According to local sources, the armed group, which calls itself “Rehmonnya,” has given the village four days to raise the funds. The group initially gave the village until only today to make the payment, though it contacted village leaders a second time yesterday to push the deadline back to June 12.
Yesterday’s order comes just a week after two retired headmen from the same village were seized by 10 armed members of the group, who fired at least four shots during their time in the village. According to contacts in the NMSP as well as local sources – including one who said he talked with relatives of the headmen – the men were held for two days and released after their families paid 50,000 baht.

The headmen would not speak to IMNA about their kidnapping, however, and would neither confirm nor deny whether payments were made to secure their release. Rehmonnya denies that any ransom was required for the release of the men. Speaking with IMNA by phone today, Nai Khin Maung, who issued the taxation order and commanded the soldiers who detained the headmen, said that no money exchanged hands.

The NMSP response to Rehmonnya’s recent activities has been to increase security in the area; Brigade No. 3 village is just 1 mile away from the headquarters of Brigade No. 3 of the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), the NMSP’s armed wing.

According to party sources, local officials in the NMSP and MNLA held meetings yesterday and today to discuss responses to the activities by Rehmonnya. Pre-existing NMSP policy prohibits unauthorized taxation within party territory, and sources at the meeting said the party would do what it can to protect the villagers.

Rotating sentries made up of 11 MNLA soldiers and 10 villagers were posted in the area following the taxation order, an MNLA commander present at the meeting said, while additional MNLA soldiers from elsewhere in NMSP territory have been sent for.

At least one party source is worried that the NMSP will be perceived as weak because of Rehmonnya’s brazen activities. “An armed group is collecting money from our villagers,” the MNLA commander who spoke with IMNA said. “This will affect the reputation of the NMSP.”

Rehmonnya’s incursion into NMSP territory comes as the party faces mounting pressure from a variety of sources, both inside and outside the party. Burma’s military government has been pushing the party to join elections scheduled for 2010 as well as bring the MNLA under government control, demands the party has thus far not met. Factions within the party disagree on how to respond, meanwhile, and there have been persistent rumors of defections and early retirements by high officials who wish to contest the election – or resume armed insurgency.

According to Nai Khin Maung, Rehmonnya is looking to resume armed insurgency; whether it has any support from within the party is unknown. Nai Khin Maung, for instance, left the NMSP immediately following its 1995 ceasefire. Very little is known about the group, and none of the party sources canvassed by IMNA could confirm its strength or when it was founded.

Nai Khin Maung told IMNA that the group was founded during last year’s winter season, and consists of 240 soldiers, who are mostly “underground” but are preparing to clash with Burma’s military government. He also confirmed a report by IMNA last week, and said that the group is not and has never been allied with Nai Pan Nyunt, former MNLA second-in-command and leader of the Monland Restoration Party, the largest active Mon insurgent group of the last decade.

Rehmonnya’s objectives are independence for Mon people and opposition to Burma’s military government, Nai Khin Maung told IMNA as he defended his group’s recent activities. “We arrested the two villagers because we wanted help from them – we didn’t take money from them,” he said. “But now we are asking for an annual payment of money like the NMSP asks every year. The next year we will be asking again at that time.”

“In our group, the number of soldiers is bigger than the number of guns,” he said, going on to argue that the payments demanded from Brigade No. 3 village are optional. “So, we ask for money as the willing help of villagers.”

When asked by IMNA about Rehmonnya’s response to increased security efforts by the NMSP, he did not shy away from the prospect of clashes with the NSMP, though he did not relish it. “If the NMSP does not make a problem for us, when we meet the NMSP outside we will not shoot. If they make problems for us, we will shoot,” he said, going on to say: “If they do not shoot us, we will not shoot them.”

How far the NMSP is willing to go to enforce its ban on taxation by outside groups remains to be seen. In April, however, NMSP officials and a small group of men from the government-allied Mon Peace and Defence Force (MPDF) got into an armed altercation over taxation in Kyaikmaway Township. No one was injured, though shots were fired. No NMSP retaliation has been reported, though the MPDF assassinated a respected NMSP member soon after.

In an interview regarding the MPDF activities, which have included a second – failed – assassination attempt, an NMSP officer inside Burma said that the party wished to avoid Mon-on-Mon violence. “Honestly, if I have to tell you, we are not afraid of the [MPDF]. If we want to fight, we can fight them all,” he told IMNA. “But if we fight Mon and Mon, who will lose? We will lose: we are the same nation. The [government of Burma] will not lose.”

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