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Calls grow for withdrawal of Burma Army troops in Karen State’s Hpapun

Displaced villagers demonstrate in Hpapun Township, Karen State, on 19 March. (Photo: Saw Oh Moo)

Joining a rising chorus of voices objecting to the encroachment of Burma Army troops into territory in Karen State, hundreds of villagers in the state’s Hpapun Township staged a protest on Monday, calling on the military to withdraw its forces.

Earlier this month, the Burma Army engaged in clashes with soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army — the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) — in Hpapun. The fighting has resulted in some of the most significant displacement of civilians in Karen State in years.

At the heart of the conflict between the two sides appears to be a recent initiative of the Burma Army to construct a road that, if completed, would run through KNU territory in the village tracts of Ler Mu Plaw and Kay Bu.

“More than 1,700 of our villagers, including the elderly, women, and children, have fled during the last two weeks and are now hiding in the forest,” read a statement from Karen activists released to coincide with Monday’s protest.

“In this mountainous region, it is cold at night, and our people are suffering from psychological trauma and various illnesses, exacerbated by shortages of food and medicine,” it continued. “The Burma Army’s plan to construct a military road through our land threatens to permanently displace us from our ancestral homes and farms, and will push us into poverty and food insecurity.”

Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, local aid worker Naw Sar Mu said clashes broke out again on Monday evening.

“We demand that the government’s army and KNU sit for talks over the safety of the locals,” Hpapun resident Saw Thio Mu told DVB.

Meanwhile the KNU, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signatory, released a statement late last week, also calling for the withdrawal of government troops recently deployed in Hpapun.

“As the KNU did not give permission according to progress of the peace process, and as the Tatmadaw [Burma Army], after increasing its strength, continued to carry out the road construction survey in combination with military activities, tension has arisen between the two sides and, as a result, nearly 2,000 people from 14 local villages fled,” read the KNU statement.

It went on to say that “this is breaching the terms of the NCA.”

In one of three demands issued by the KNU in the statement, the ethnic armed group said: “We call upon the Tatmadaw to cease its military activities as a way of demonstrating trust building. In practice, to withdraw the Military Operations Commands [MOCs] and the battalions under them, which have been sent in for road building, and to guarantee security for the Internally Displaced Karen people, seeking refuge away from fighting, to return to their homes.”

The rare public rebuke of Tatmadaw conduct by the KNU — which has been a leading voice in the country’s ongoing peace process — comes as the government struggles to organise a third iteration of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature peace initiative.

Originally planned for January, the high-level summit has been delayed multiple times, with the latest target date reportedly set for May.

The KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire with the previous government in 2012, bringing a period of relative peace to a region along Burma’s border with Thailand that had been wracked by conflict for decades. The group signed the NCA along with seven other non-state armed groups in October 2015.

With additional reporting by Naw Noreen