Myawaddy, where the military council’s authority has dwindled

Myanmar Spring Chronicle – April 07

MoeMaKa, April 08, 2024

Myawaddy, where the military council’s authority has dwindled

Myawaddy, situated in Karen State, and Mae Sot City in Thailand’s Tak District, are neighboring border towns divided by the Thaungyin River. Since Myanmar’s socialist era, known as the Masala period, Mae Sot has thrived as a hub for border trade, facilitating the exchange of goods between Thailand and Myanmar through border gates like Hpalue and Waw Lay. Following the 1988 uprising, the Mae Sot-Myawaddy route became increasingly busy, serving as a vital trade conduit officially recognized under the SLORC junta regime. Over three decades, Myawaddy has flourished into a bustling town, thanks to infrastructure development like the Myawaddy-Kawkareik-Indu Highway, constructed with financial aid from institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, facilitating smoother and faster transportation.

Mae Sot has evolved into a sanctuary for politicians and civil society organizations at odds with Myanmar’s military regime. Since the 2021 military coup, it has become a haven for those fleeing persecution after participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and those opposing the coup. Myawaddy serves as a rest stop for those en route to Mae Sot. After three years under military council control, the town is now seeing attempts by the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) to assert control. While the KNLA and allied groups have long sought to capture Kawkareik, recent efforts to cut off the Kawkareik-Myawaddy Road have led to the gradual seizure of strategic positions near Myawaddy and Thin Gan Nyi Naung. With only the Light Infantry Battalion LIB-275, known as the town’s defense battalion, remaining to be captured, the fall of Myawaddy appears imminent. While the prospect of direct conflict in Myawaddy remains uncertain, district-level officials and government personnel were evacuated by air to Yangon or Mawlamyine in Myanmar on the night of April 7, facilitated through Mae Sot. Departure by land from Myawaddy has become challenging, leaving the military council little choice but to relinquish control of the border trade hub. The KNU/KNLA may seek to secure Myawaddy through diplomatic means rather than resorting to military action, given its relationship with Thailand.

For the military council, surrendering Myawaddy and relinquishing control of the primary border trade station along the Thai-Myanmar border would be a significant blow. Over the past three years, Myawaddy has relied on support from Border Guard Force (BGF) units led by Saw Chit Thu, aligned with the military council. However, following Saw Chit Thu’s decision to disassociate from the BGF and operate independently, the military council’s grip on Myawaddy weakened considerably. The area surrounding Myawaddy and Kawkareik has seen activity from the KNU/KNLA, KNU/KNLA (PC), and DKBA, extending from Hpa-An in Karen State. While the BGF has engaged in battles on behalf of the military council, it has also turned a blind eye to illicit activities, including casinos, online fraud rings, unauthorized car smuggling, and drug trafficking around Shwe Koke Ko villages in Myawaddy, with some proceeds shared among military officers overseeing the area.

However, following the BGF’s reassessment of the military landscape post-Operation 1027 and its subsequent shift in allegiance, the military council faces heightened vulnerability of losing control over bases in Myawaddy and the eastern part of Karen State. Presently, Thailand maintains a close relationship with the military council, fostering strong ties between their respective militaries and governments.

The potential fall of Myawaddy raises questions about the military council’s ability to levy taxes on Thai-Myanmar border trade. Even if the military council relinquishes control of Myawaddy, it may seek to impose taxes before goods pass from territories under its control to Myawaddy.

While Hpa-An, the capital of Karen State, currently enjoys stability, there is a looming possibility of it becoming vulnerable to threats in the near future.

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