Thousands of civilians staged protests in 11 villages in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin and Mon states Wednesday, demanding that the country’s military withdraw from their area and abide by a nationwide cease-fire agreement reached in 2015.
The protests follow a flare-up since early December in fighting between Myanmar forces and the Karen National Union (KNU), with recent armed clashes causing more than 5,000 residents to flee their homes for refugee camps.
The KNU, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic rebel army, is one of 10 ethnic armies that have signed the Nationwide Cease-Fire Agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar military. The fragile October 2015 pact is intended to end decades of conflict that have hindered Myanmar’s political and economic development.
Protesters from 11 villages in the conflict zone called for the Myanmar military to withdraw and adhere to NCA rules and the agreed-upon code of conduct as tensions between the two sides remain high.
“We don’t want the military’s troops here,” said Naw Ohn Kyin, who participated in the protest. “We don’t have KNU troops stationed here, though this is KNU territory.”
The government forces have been stationed in the villages of Kyathaung Seik, Lay Kay, and Win Tar Pan in territory controlled by the KNU on the border between Kayin state’s Hpa-an township and Mon state’s Belin township.
“We want all of them to leave the area, Naw Ohn Kyin said. “The local people are living in fear because of their presence. We are always worried about when they will start shooting and firing guns.”
The protesters said that some villagers had left their homes following armed engagements in Kayin state’s Hpapun township.
Nay Alkaphaw from Pyinmapin Seik village said that local residents perceive the presence of government troops as a threat.
“We have no security when they are here,” he said. “We do our daily activities in fear as long as they are here. Especially for women, there is always the risk of getting raped by soldiers. That’s why we believe our lives will be safe only if the military troops withdraw from the area.”
Nay Alkaphaw said clashes in the KNU’s No. 5 Division’s territory in the Mae Wine area were sparked by the Myanmar military’s presence there.
“If they had not been stationed here, then the battles would not have occurred,” he said.
‘This is our evidence’
The Myanmar military has denied accusations by the KNU that troop reinforcements in its controlled area caused the fighting.
Myanmar defense forces spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told reporters Tuesday that the military had withdrawn dozens of units from KNU territory in Kayin state and Bago region since 1990 and had not sent in recent reinforcements as the KNU asserts.
“All in all, we have withdrawn a total of 61 military units stationed in KNU territory,” he said at a press conference in Naypyidaw. “This is our evidence. I don’t know why officials from the KNU’s No. 5 Division are accusing us of sending reinforcements to the area.”
KNU secretary Pado Saw Hla Tun rejected the military’s statement, arguing that 125 Myanmar units are stationed in the area.
“We are appealing to them to withdraw troops stationed in civilian areas and in religious buildings in Division No. 7’s territory,” he said.
“It’s not true that they have withdrawn 61 units from the area,” he said. “They also need to pinpoint the accurate location of the units they claim to have withdrawn so we can record them.”
Fighting between Myanmar soldiers and the KNU in the rebel army’s No. 5 Division in Hpapun district have prompted more than 4,100 civilians from 17 villages to flee their homes, according to the Karen fighters.
Armed clashes in nearby Kyaukkyi township, Bago region, also forced residents to flee to safety, said Saw Kyaw Lin Oo from the Karen Youth Network, a community organization helping displaced civilians from Hpapun and Kyaukkyi.
“So far, the KNU’s No. 5 Division’s records show over 4,100 IDPs in Hpapun and 1,000 in the Nyaung Lay Pin district of Bago region,” he said. “They need food supplies and medicine. During the winter months, they will need warm clothes and blankets They also need materials like tarpaulins for building makeshift tents.”
Local civil society leaders have suggested urgent face-to-face meetings between KNU and Myanmar military leaders to reduce the tensions.
Over 170 social and civil society groups on Jan. 20 sent letters to Myanmar’s President Win Myint and the country’s state counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi appealing for help to end the armed conflict in Kayin state.
Reported by Min Khine Soe Linn and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.