Chiang Mai, Thailand (Mizzima) - A bomb blast at Karen New Year celebrations in Papun town on December 16 was quickly blamed on the Karen National Union (KNU) but border sources suggest that the blast may be the prelude to a dry season offensive in northern Karen State early next year.
The explosion killed seven Karen and injured a further 11 celebrating the New Year at a fair ground in the town of Papun. Burma watchers say bomb blasts have frequently been used by the junta in the past as excuses for launching military operations. Many observers believe that many of the bombs were planted by the regime itself.
In 2006 a series of explosions in central Burma were blamed on the KNU's armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). A regime spokesman said at the time that offensive military operations in eastern Pegu Division and northern Karen State were necessary to stop the "terrorist attacks" of the KNU. Military operations continued for months and resulted in the displacement of thousands of Karen villagers.
This time the regime looks set to use the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) to attempt to seize control of the region. Rumours of an offensive into northern Karen State began circulating shortly after the completion of operations against the Karen National Liberation Army's (KNLA) 7th Brigade in central Karen State in June. The unusual rainy season offensive resulted in the KNLA's loss of several border camps and established DKBA control of the border from Myawaddy to the confluence of the Moei and Salween Rivers.
Predictions of an offensive appeared to be substantiated when a column of DKBA soldiers was ambushed by the KNLA in September north of the town of Ka Ma Maung. At least seven DKBA soldiers were killed in the fighting and many others wounded which prompted them to turn back.
Border sources say the real reason for the halt in operations was that its architect, DKBA Colonel Maung Chit Thu had become ill. Chit Thu has become one of the most active officers in the DKBA and commands some of its strongest units. He commanded the fighting in June and his forces have taken part in most of the DKBA's military operations aimed at consolidating their control over central and southern Karen State in the past few years. Key to any push into northern Karen State, his hospitalization for appendicitis apparently put the DKBA's plans on hold for several months.
Now recovered, sources close to the DKBA say he is eager to restart operations aimed at finally defeating the last major pocket of KNU resistance to both DKBA and Burmese junta rule. Although the KNU still maintains several small pockets of territory in Tenasserim Division, Mon State and south and central Karen State, the largest areas which could still be called liberated territory remain in eastern Pegu Division and in Papun and Thandaung townships of northern Karen State. Both the junta, and many Karen, view these areas as the hardcore of the Karen resistance.
The area has been almost devoid of DKBA influence since its founding 15 years ago on December 21 1994. Attempts to recruit in the Papun area have been largely unsuccessful and only a couple of hundred DKBA soldiers have ever been present in the area. The DKBA was also unsuccessful in past efforts to extend its influence into eastern Pegu Division.
KNLA sources say the offensive would likely follow the same pattern as fighting in 7th Brigade earlier this year and other offensives in past years with DKBA troops out front and Burma Army soldiers in support. The DKBA conducted several conscription drives in the past year with the aim of increasing troop numbers to 9,000. This increase in strength is related to its transformation into border guard battalions, but also necessary to seize and control northern Karen State.
Burmese Army forces are expected to take a supporting role providing security to supply lines and artillery support. The army is already stretched due to the need to reinforce units in northern Burma where the defiance of former ceasefire groups to the regime's Border Guard Force plans has created the possibility of renewed civil war. In addition units must be maintained in central Burma to prevent potential civil unrest.
A successful DKBA offensive would allow the group to claim control over almost all of Karen State and virtually remove the KNU as a rival for power in the region. For the SPDC it would remove an insurgent group that has been a thorn in its side since 1949 and replace it with what it views as a much more compliant group.
There is a risk, however, for the junta that control over all of Karen State could embolden the DKBA. It would place the DKBA leadership in a much better bargaining position to negotiate the terms of its conversion to a Border Guard Force. Although the group was the first to agree to converting its military into Burma Army controlled border guard units, progress appears to have stagnated. There are also growing rumours of dissatisfaction in the ranks of the DKBA with effectively handing over control to the Burmese military.
The DKBA may also feel that complete control over Karen State would allow it to better contest elections planned for next year and put itself in the driving seat politically. How the group will manage this, however, is unclear. The group's political wing, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization, has been defunct for over a decade, and many of its members have publicly decried their lack of political savvy. Sources close to the DKBA say individual members are considering contesting the elections, but there is no word yet on forming a political party.
Success would also secure the DKBA's business holdings in the region and expand them into new territory. It is so far unclear what will happen to its businesses once its soldiers convert to border guards. Effective political control, however, would presumably allow it to maintain its economic holdings even outside of its military structure.
The DKBA has been fighting the KNU since it split from that group on December 21, 1994. Their mutiny allowed the Burmese Army to seize key KNU bases in 1995 and was a major setback for the Karen. With active support from the junta the group has steadily expanded its influence in the region. The group, however, continues to suffer from a poor human rights image and general lack of support from the local population.