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The Burmese army has ordered the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) to move out of an area designated for a Thai-backed hydropower dam in eastern Burma or risk military action, in a move that rebels say could disrupt the ceasefire process.
Battalion commander, Major San Aung from the DKBA, told DVB that the group was issued an ultimatum from the regional Burmese army command on Thursday to leave the contested area — which has been slated for the development of the controversial Hatgyi dam project — or face renewed clashes.
“The [Burmese army] has given us an ultimatum to move out of the dam area by 12 noon on 4 May and relocate to Mae Pa and Mae Kasaw areas,” said Major San Aung, referring to an area that activists say will be flooded if the project goes ahead. “I would like to tell the government’s union ministers working on the peace process that forcing us like this may harm the ceasefire.”
The ultimatum follows several days of clashes between DKBA rebels and government-backed Border Guard Force (BGF) militia over the weekend in disputed territories in Burma’s eastern Karen state.
On 26 April, a DKBA soldier reportedly opened fire on a motorboat from BGF 1014 (formerly DKBA Brigade 999) when it refused to stop at the group’s checkpoint on the Moei River, between Yawputha and Kamamong villages, close to the Hatgyi dam project, killing one BGF soldier.
The DKBA says they handed over their soldier to the government to face legal charges over the incident. But on the evening of the following day, over 100 BGF soldiers surrounded a DKBA unit in the Myaingyingu region, prompting a fierce clash that raged through the weekend.
According to a local source, two local villagers were injured by artillery shells during the fight, while others were forced to flee into nearby villages. Land and water transportation routes to the area were also cut off. BGF troops reportedly suffered dozens of casualties, including one fatality, according to Thai agency news and DKBA sources.
The Hatgyi project is a small hydropower dam planned about 33 km downstream from the confluence of the Salween and Moei rivers near the Thai border in eastern Karen state. Civil society groups have previously warned that pushing ahead with the USD$2.6 billion dollar project, which will pump most of its electricity into neighbouring Thailand, could reignite conflict in Burma’s fragile border regions, as well as cause widespread displacement and ecological damage.
The DKBA signed a tentative ceasefire agreement with the government in November 2011, but relations remain volatile as clashes between rebel and government forces continue. According to the NGO Salween Watch, the army has continued to build up troops across the region to provide security for the development of the controversial dam.
The Burmese army has also been accused of stepping up military action against ethnic minority rebels in northern Shan state to secure areas further north along the Salween River intended for Chinese-backed hydro-power projects.
The DKBA was formed in the mid-1990s after a faction split off from the Karen National Union and sided with the government. In 2010, a breakaway faction, led by Saw La Pwe (aka Na Kham Mwe), took up arms against the government again after refusing to transform into a BGF. The remaining DKBA troops who did not defect with Saw La Pwe are now part of the Naypyidaw-controlled BGF.