At least 7,000 members of an ethnic Karen force of border guards backed by the Myanmar military resigned on Thursday to protest the ouster of their top leaders under pressure amid controversy over business dealings by the group, sources in the country say.
The mass resignation followed the removal of senior officers Major Saw Chit Thu, Major Mout Thon, and Major Tin Win, who were forced to resign last week after being summoned by the Myanmar military for discussions, one officer of the Border Guard Force told RFA on Friday.
“This action badly demoralized all of our troops, because these leaders looked after their economic well-being, and without them our soldiers’ families may now face hardships,” the BGF officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Therefore, we all decided to resign to show our disappointment,” he said.
Myanmar military officers met on Friday with BGF commanders to ask them to reconsider their unit’s resignations, said BGF discipline and security officer Major Naing Maung Zaw, also speaking on Friday to RFA.
“They came to talk to us today and told us to reconsider,” he said, adding there was evident goodwill on the part of some of the Myanmar officers with whom they spoke.
“It seems that they would like to avoid unnecessary problems. So depending on what is discussed today, we will speak with our troops about what may be best for our region and our state. They might need to come back again for further negotiations,” he said.
Kayin state lies in southeastern Myanmar and has a long border with Thailand.
Concerns over business
Founded in August 2010 and tasked with guarding areas along the border with Thailand in southern Myanmar, Kayin state’s Border Guard Force has been repeatedly warned by its Myanmar military backers not to engage in business activities, many of them reportedly illegal, Myanmar sources say.
The military finally intervened when news reports emerged about public concerns over the U.S. $15 billion Shwe Kokko city project in Kayin state’s Thai border town of Myawaddy, “including the alleged involvement of Chinese criminals,” Myanmar’s Irrawaddy news service reported on Friday.
“Backed by Chinese investors accused of operating illegal casino activities in Cambodia and the Philippines, the project has been the subject of criticism for more than a year due to a lack of transparency, land confiscations, confusion over the scale of construction, and the growing influx of Chinese money,” Irrawaddy said.
Speaking to reporters on Jan. 8, spokesperson for the President’s Office Zaw Htay said that Myanmar has suspended the Shwe Kokko project because it was growing beyond its permitted scope. Supervision of the project will now be moved from the BGF to government administrators, he said.
Not a long-term solution
Problems now existing between the BGF and Myanmar’s military can easily be solved by talks, said Min Zaw Oo of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.
“These problems mainly revolve around the Chinese-invested businesses in the Shwe Kokko city project, and with regard to this, the government has encouraged the military to handle the problems, given that the BGF is under their command,” he said.
“But the military may not put too much pressure on the BGF because they have been working together for so long,” he said.
“I think they can resolve these problems through negotiations,” agreed political analyst Aung Thu Nyein. “But this won’t be a long-term solution.”
“These BGF forces have vested business interests though they are still an armed group,” Aung Thu Nyein said, adding that similar ethnic armies have been put under military command as border guards in Kayah and Shan states while negotiations on regional autonomy continue with Myanmar’s central government.
“Keeping these militias under military control is only a short-term solution until peace deals can be reached and these armed groups can be disbanded,” he said.
“Unless this happens, these problems will arise again from time to time,” he said.
Reported by Saw Nyunt Thaung, Kyaw Lwin Oo, and Aung Thein Kha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.