Myanmar’s rebels take control of Myawaddy town as junta troops surrenders

Soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) prepare to patrol Myawaddy, the Thailand-Myanmar border town under the control of a coalition of rebel forces led by the Karen National Union, in Myanmar, April 15, 2024. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of Myanmar’s Karen National Union (KNU) a staunch opponent of the military coup, captured the 275 Light Infantry Battalion base about 5km (3.1 miles) west of Myawaddy, a town of crucial strategic importance on the Myanmar-Thai border.

The KNU immediately claimed a successful offensive, sharing photos of its troops at the entrance to the city. Although the KNU did not definitively claim they had taken the town, many thought Myawaddy had been fully liberated by the forces fighting against the generals who seized power from the elected government in a 2021 coup.

But the situation was not quite as it seemed.

Just two weeks after the KNLA took control of the base, the Myanmar military was back, sharing a picture of its soldiers raising their flag back at the site in a sudden and surprising turn of events.

Interviews with Myawaddy residents, sources close to the offensive and analysts indicate the KNLA never took the entire town. Rather, Myawaddy was under the control of the Border Guard Forces (BGF), a notorious militia operating in the border areas that are home to the ethnic Karen, Myanmar’s second largest ethnic group. And at the heart of the incident is Colonel Saw Chit Thu – an ethnic Karen strongman who leads the BGF with thousands of armed men under his command.

“Myawaddy was never captured by the KNLA. While the junta’s remaining troops from the 275th LIB retreated, the BGF army took control of Myawaddy and Saw Chit Thu stated that they would remain neutral to avoid conflict within the city,” a source close to a Karen ethnic armed group told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.

During the capture of the 275th LIB, the BGF troops facilitated the transfer of junta troops from their base to the 2nd Friendship Bridge. Although the KNLA forces were permitted to enter the city, they were not authorised to occupy it, or target any of the junta’s administrative buildings within the city.”

The claim was corroborated by four different sources and analysts with deep knowledge of the incident.

Myawaddy is one of Myanmar’s largest cities with a population of more than 200,000, and occupies a crucial position on the Thai-Myanmar border through which billions of dollars of trade have passed for decades. Its apparent fall suggested a significant breakthrough for those fighting against the generals following the successes of Operation 1027, a major offensive launched by a coalition of other ethnic armed groups last year.

But when the Myanmar military made threats to destroy the town from the air and attack Shwe Kokko, a district just north of Myawaddy and the heart of Saw Chit Thu’s criminal empire where scam operations are rampant, he chose to allow the military to retake their base to entrench his power and profits.

“It became clear that the BGF had been playing both sides and that it ultimately pivoted to assist the military regime, leading to the photo op of the Myanmar flag once again being raised over the base,” Jason Tower, the Myanmar director of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) told Al Jazeera.

Saw Chit Thu is a veteran fighter and was once the commander of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) Battalion 999, a military-linked group that split from the KNU in 1994. Since then, he has become one of the most feared figures in Karen State and has worked closely with the Myanmar military.

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