Ethnic ceasefire groups were upset this year when the Burmese junta announced plans to transform them into a Border Guard Force (BGF). However, one Karen rebel splinter group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), quickly joined, seeing it as an opportunity to expand its troops and as a road to riches.
According to a DKBA report on a meeting in May on the transformation of the Border Guard Force that was obtained by The Irrawaddy, the DKBA plans to expand its troops from 6,000 to 9,000.
At the meeting, Tun Hlaing, the DKBA commander, said that the armed group would recruit or conscript 3,000 more soldiers.
If the DKBA reaches an armed force of 9,000 troops, it would be the second largest non-state-armed group in Burma, after the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA has an estimated 25,000 troops based in northern and southern Shan State.
In 1995, Buddhist Karen rebels separated from the mainly Christian-dominated Karen National Union (KNU) that has sought Karen autonomy for more than six decades. Later, they formed the DKBA.
In 1995, the DKBA allied with the Burmese army, which eventually led to the fall of the then KNU headquarters at Manerplaw. “The [Burmese] government has had some success using religion to split the insurgent factions,” Larry J Remon, a security analyst wrote in a bulletin of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, while noting that the success has been coupled with lucrative rewards for corrupt leaders.
Maj-Gen Thet Naing Win, the commander of the Burmese army’s Southeast Regional Command, met with leaders of the DKBA at the headquarter of the 22nd Light Infantry Division in Hpa-an in Karen State on April 18.
At the meeting, the DKBA commander, Thar Htoo Kyaw, said that the DKBA will transform into a Border Guard Force in order to survive.
According to Thar Htoo Kyaw, the Burmese commander told them that the DKBA headquarter will become a Border Guard Commanding Headquarter under the transformation plan.
After transformation, the border guard forces of the DKBA will still be under the DKBA flag.
Under a draft plan on troop transformation, DKBA commanders would be allowed to have 22 battalions under five brigades and one central headquarters.
Thar Htoo Kyaw said at the meeting that the DKBA will recruit between ages 18 and 50. In early fall, the DKBA will report on its armed structure to Burmese commanders.
Since May, along with DKBA troops, Burmese forces have conducted a military offensive against the Karen National Liberated Army, the military wing of the KNU.
Thousands of Karen have escaped the offensive to neighboring Thailand and an unknown number of villagers are now internally displaced persons living in the jungle.
In the past 14 years, the DKBA, allied with the junta, several times crossed into Thailand and burned Karen refugee camps.
Security analysts describe the DKBA as an armed group that brings in income from drug trafficking and car smuggling activities, which are tacitly condoned by the military junta.
Which ever side wins in the current offensive, the territory under its control will provide lucrative income from timber, commercial trading and taxes.