Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) fighters leaving in a pick-up truck following celebrations marking the 66th Karen Revolution Day at the KNLA Seventh Brigade headquarters in Myanmar's eastern Kayin state in a 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/KC Ortiz

CHIANG MAI – There was a frustrating fait accompli to the recent statement by Myanmar’s oldest ethnic insurgents, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), on December 1 when it demanded the withdrawal of all Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, bases from its territory.

This was the culmination of over two years of rising frustration and bellicose public statements against what the KNLA sees as Tatmadaw expansionism. Fighting between the two sides resumed soon after the statement, and over the last two weeks there have been several clashes with numerous casualties.

The KNLA, and its political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU) blame a gradual buildup of Tatmadaw units in Hpapun Township, where a controversial road-building project has fueled instability and numerous armed incidents, and the displacement of civilians and a number of killings.

The Tatmadaw claims that there is competition over gold mining and other extractive projects in the area. Nevertheless, the two sides are technically cooperating in a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) they both signed in October 2015. But eastern Kayin state is anything but “post-conflict.”

In an interview with Karen News clarifying the KNLA, Brigadier General Tamala Thaw said, “Skirmishes are normal while the ceasefire agreement is not strong…It is imperative to establish a ceasefire area as mentioned in the provision of the NCA. There must be no troop movements for territorial control. With the withdrawal of military bases in civilian areas, there is no reason for fighting.”

Local communities are exhausted by the instability. The murder of a Kayin woman, Naw Mu Naw, by Tatmadaw troops in July, evinced a series of protests outside military bases by several thousand civilians calling for the troops to leave and decrying a series of other civilian casualties and occasional Tatmadaw artillery strikes in the area.

Myanmar’s soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country’s 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

At the same time as fighting resumed in Hpapun, the Tatmadaw was staging heavily militarized search operations in the border town of Myawaddy, reportedly against members of nominally Tatmadaw-controlled Border Guard Force (BGF) members.

There were also reported raids in BGF-controlled Shwe Kokko, with a number of illegally imported cars seized. The killings of five Myanmar security personnel in Kawkareik township in early September have been linked to illicit casino operations.

The formerly entwined relationship between the Tatmadaw and the BGF’s led by the controversial Saw Chit Thu, the head of the Kayin state Border Guard Force, appears to have soured.

Saw Chit Thu and another commander Moe Shay reportedly left Shwe Kokko, their long-standing base after defecting from the KNLA in 1994 and forming the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and are in hiding elsewhere in Kayin state.

One reason could well be the BGF’s involvement in a sprawling entertainment complex in the area, with heavy involvement of Chinese transnational criminal networks and casino entrepreneurs. The notoriety of the Shwe Kokko complex has been an embarrassment to the Tatmadaw and challenged the notion of sovereign control of the area.

The Chinese Embassy issued a statement calling for an investigation into the project, and on December 9 the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the reputed head of the project, 14K Triad leader Wan Kuok Koi, aka “Broken Tooth.”

Parts of the Kayin borderlands have increasingly become extraterritorial enclaves run by gangsters, both Chinese and Myanmar.

Map showing Kayin state in Myanmar. Image: Twitter

For Kayin state, the promise of elections increasing ethnic Kayin representation were dashed by the November 8 polls. Only one ethnic party won a seat, the Karen Peoples Party (KPP), while the merged Karen National Development Party (KNDP) failed to win any.

The landslide win by the National League for Democracy (NLD), with 294,270 votes against the KNDP’s 102,796 votes, was complete. The formerly military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) retained control of all seats in Hpapun township.

Voter turnout was the lowest in Myanmar: 53%, with the nationwide average of over 71%. Electoral politics and the peace process do not appear conducive to addressing the aspirations of ethnic Kayin communities.

The glaringly dysfunctional peace process, and tripwire possibility of further conflict and all the abuses against civilians that inevitably occur, do not seem to concern the delusional denizens of the Western peace industrial complex.

After five years of failure, many Western donors appear content to continue squandering financing on a failed process in which the Tatmadaw has no genuine ardor, and the government has even fewer good ideas. Hopes for a post-election Naypyidaw enlightenment are unlikely to be rewarded.

The instability in northern Karen state should evince a failing grade for the joint Tatmadaw, EAO, and civilian comprised Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), a money trap which has already scoffed US$10 million with nothing to show for it but increased acrimony between the parties, and the failure to resolve breaches of the NCA.

In his interview, Brigadier General Tamala Thaw said, “the Tatmadaw is using JMC as a Military Committee…the KNU feels that it is just a one-sided complaint mechanism that cannot carry out effective monitoring without any clearly set guidelines. The KNU wants the JMC to be reformed.”

Defenders of the JMC find themselves increasingly in the role of the pet store worker in the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” skit: it may well have “beautiful plumage”, but it’s still dead.

Within this restive milieu, the World Bank has been preparing to loan the Myanmar government over $200 million for infrastructure projects, billed as the Peaceful and Prosperous Communities (PPC) proposal, which has yet to be approved by the Bank’s board but has already advanced beyond consultations.

A Karen insurgent soldier holds a rocket launcher while standing guard at Oo Kray Kee village in Karen State near the Thai-Myanmar border in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul
A Karen insurgent soldier holds a rocket launcher while standing guard at Oo Kray Kee village in Karen State near the Thai-Myanmar border in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Yet this project could serve as a line of credit for continued counterinsurgency, a funding arm for repression and division to prolong a protracted conflict.

It also exposes the cognitive dissonance of Western aid donors, who have squandered tens of millions of dollars on a failing peace process, to shoehorn money into projects like PPC, whilst spouting increasingly unconvincing commitments to human rights and a “do no harm” principle.

The Bank’s own project documents from late 2019 give sound reasons to avoid approving the loan, arguing that, “(local) perceptions are shaped by a long legacy of development projects being used to further state-building aims, generating significant negative externalities, or being used to “buy the peace” by benefitting primarily local elites and powerholders…the lack of direct oversight of security forces and activities by the civilian government, combined with coordination challenges between the union, state and local levels of government, generate a high potential for misunderstandings.”

And yet the Bank is still pursuing the project despite all evidence that it could potentially disrupt an already divisive and delicate situation, as it is with so many promised Covid-19 recovery loans.

The pandemic portends a significant shift away from people-centric development models to large-scale development projects; dams, bridges, road, and industrial zones, from financing from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

These large international agencies have remained largely oblivious to overdue reform and accountability, and generally antagonistic to human rights and environmental concerns as well as alternative approaches to development.

The ADB has for several years been embroiled in a controversial road project in Kayin state, which involved malfeasance and abuses by BGF units, an emblematic cautionary tale for investors and development technocrats eying the area.

Without a genuine peace process that actually addresses the multiple agendas of greed by multiple armed actors and hoodlums, conflict in Kayin state will persist. Throwing good money after bad will only worsen an already deplorable condition of incessant instability.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on peace, conflict and human rights issues in Myanmar