🇲🇲 Junta holds the line in Myawaddy

NUG is mad at China while the junta is mad at the US

Hello friend!

Sounds like still a lot to shake out in Myawaddy, but twin reports from the BBC and Reuters are fascinating and will keep us busy while we await more.

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Erin Cook

The Myawaddy shuffle

The empire has struck back in Myawaddy, Myanmar Now reported at the end of last week. The junta forces smashed armed groups outside of the city with air and artillery strikes Thursday after it re-seized control of Myawaddy. Karen National Union troops made a “temporary retreat” from the area, spokesperson Saw Taw Nee told Reuters last week

The cooler heads amongst us who advised caution in the face of exciting ‘is this the end of the junta?’ have prevailed, it seems. The defeat of the Myanmar military in Myawaddy, Kayin State, may prove short-lived with the junta appearing ‘to have held the line,’ as Jonathan Head puts it in this analysis for the BBC. While that does nothing to lessen the impact of such an enormous psychological victory in both Kayin State and throughout the country, digging through it further is valuable. 

The Karen National Union, the 77-year-old group fighting for self-governance in the state, seized the city but never actually occupied it, Head clarifies. And that’s because, like all things in Myanmar’s tapestry of ethnic armed organisations and the military, it’s way more complicated than it looks at first glance. The KNU isn’t the only group in Kayin State and many of those were, until very recently, aligned with the junta. Still, fighting against locals is the last thing the group wants. 

Interestingly, the KNU has been in touch with Thai authorities, sources told the BBC. The military across the border asked the militia to not push a larger offensive for control of the city against the Myanmar military. This would have inevitably destabilised the city more, disrupted trade further and sent even more refugees fleeing across the border. Instead, the KNU focused its efforts on a battle outside the city limits. This is a really interesting piece that digs deep into the KNU’s various challenges as well as the fingers in dodgy and dodgy-adjacent pies. 

So, what’s up with the withdrawal? Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU, had to back off for reasons that aren’t entirely known, but explored here by Myanmar Now. “Given this important situation, to avoid falling into the enemy’s trap, we deemed it necessary to temporarily withdraw our KNLA joint forces from Myawaddy,” KNU spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee said. 

There has been some speculation, reported by the BBC Thai service, that the KNU and the junta have been in talks via the Unity Committee For Karen Armed Group — an umbrella featuring all of the various groups and predating the coup. Oh my god, my head. But that’s not entirely known at this stage. “In my personal opinion, our group, the KNU, simply could not stand the huge impacts of the war.  There were more forces on the opposing side, so we withdrew. It’s not about negotiating with them. We retreated because we could not withstand them,” a high-ranking unidentified KNU member told Myanmar Now. 

I think I’m going to wait a bit longer here. It seems like while the junta may well have regained Myawaddy, nothing is entirely resolved and what’s happened exactly is still yet to be discerned. Which, I guess, should be chalked up to a win for the ‘junta is collapsing’ crowd. Myawaddy did not hold for the KNA but the battle has shown up the junta. 

Saw Chit Thu, the warlord behind the KNA, is the man this week. The above BBC piece touches on him while Reuters digs in on the ‘turncoat warlord’ deeper here. The Colonel was awarded for his “outstanding performance” by the junta in November 2022, while the UK has smacked him with sanctions for human trafficking allegations and his (again, alleged) involvement in the hideous scam compounds. 

The whole thing is long and further evidence that literally everyone in Myanmar is fascinating, but this stood out to me: ‘By 2017, the warlord became involved in the construction of Shwe Kokko, a so-called "Special Economic Zone" along the Thai-Myanmar border. The project has become a centre for transnational crime and gambling backed by Chinese-origin gangs, earning the KNA around $190 million a year, analysts say.’

🇨🇳 Please, stop arming the junta asks the NUG

Hey, China, stop giving them bloody weapons! So says the National Unity Government foreign minister, Zin Mar Aung, who is in Brussels drumming up support. “We are trying to encourage our neighbouring country, please do not support the military junta, not just only in business or financially, but also in terms of providing arms deals,” she said, as reported by South China Morning Post

“If a country supports the military junta, they are supporting [it] to kill their own people and civilians,” she added. ‘A United Nations report last year said the junta had imported at least US$1 billion in arms since the coup, with much of that coming from individuals and businesses in Russia, China and Singapore,’ the SCMP reported. 

Elsewhere, China wants to collaborate more with the junta in its crackdown on transnational crime. Both sides have been collaborating pretty deeply lately, I’d say. Still, there’s always room for more: “We want to deepen holistic collaboration on rule of law and security while seriously eradicating trans-border crimes like online scams and the drug trade,” Chinese Public Security Minister Wang Xiaohong told Xinhua Burmese (as per the Irrawaddy). 

🇺🇸 BURMA Act aid unsettles junta

Does US aid going to pro-democracy forces, including the National Unity Government and the People’s Defence Forces, constitute funding terrorism? That’s what the junta says in its rejection of funding issued under the US’s BURMA Act. “We believe the US is manipulating Myanmar to counter China's influence in the region. Despite the US presenting itself as a champion of democracy, the aid disproportionately benefits Myanmar's opposition groups, particularly the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People's Defense Force (PDF),” the junta said in a statement, as per VOA. 

That second line is genuinely unhinged. What do they think is going on here? 

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a grouping of ousted lawmakers, the Civil Disobedience Movement “and other entities in Burma and in other countries” doing what they can to unseat the junta are also reported recipients. Thailand and India will also receive US$75 million for assistance in refugee programs. This VOA piece goes deep into the US legislation of it all, which is interesting if you’re into that kind of thing. 

🇹🇭 Cabinet dramas in Bangkok detract from border work

Thailand’s response to the crisis leaking over its borders has been upended by the shock resignation of foreign minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who bailed on the gig after losing deputy prime minister status in a Bangkok cabinet reshuffle over the weekend. Parnpree was chair of a recently formed action group and had been in the process of gradually ‘reorienting’ Thailand’s policy to Myanmar and the junta after a sloppy few years. 

Maris Sangiampongsa, a former advisor to Parnpree and ex-ambassador to Australia and Canada, is expected to pick up the gig after royal approval, presumably in the coming days. 

A MAP! DW did a beautiful, colourful map! Come for the great analysis from Rodion Ebbighausen, and stay for the map that puts everything in a little perspective. 

No central government has ever succeeded in ruling the entire country. And certainly no common national identity has ever emerged in this land of many ethnicities. The intensity of the conflict between them all has ebbed and flowed over the course of the past 76 years as has the extent of central government control.

Nonetheless the military coup against the government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 ushered in a whole new phase of fragmentation.

The main difference now is that these divisions are more obvious, according to the anonymous Yangon source. "The country used to be fragmented but it wasn't as visible. Today people can see it with their own eyes because of social media and interconnectedness," they said. Talk of the country's possible disintegration is on the rise, they added.

Another devastating and vital report from Frontier Myanmar, this one from inside the country’s horrendous prisons. Healthcare has always been lacking but for political prisoners, it’s even worse and having deadly results.

“If a common prisoner asks for help, the doctor arrives at the cell in 15 minutes, but when a political prisoner needs assistance, the doctor will arrive one hour to an hour and a half later,” said Ko Myo Lwin*, a political prisoner who was released from Daik-U Prison last year.

“They are deliberately preventing political prisoners from accessing healthcare,” he told Frontier.

A woman who spent more than two years in Mandalay’s Obo Prison said in 2023 she saw three fellow political prisoners give birth in their cells after guards refused to send them to the hospital.

“All three mothers had to give birth with the help of other prisoners because there was no medical staff,” she told Frontier.

Facebook really messed up in Myanmar a few years back. Now’s the time to get it together, writes Janette Alywyn. The government has moved to block the platform, but usage still proliferates and users in Myanmar need a functional and trustworthy social network. 

With a more tailored framework to bump up desirable — albeit less engaging — news, algorithms might be able to better prioritise diverse content and provenance over pure sensationalism. This goes a long way in helping people see the platform as a mere provider of information, rather than the peddler of truth.

Facebook should step up efforts to proactively verify the accounts of political parties and affiliated entities. Despite Facebook’s takedown policy against recidivists who post harmful content, detection may not be effective because the junta has thousands of soldiers spreading misinformation via fake accounts. Facebook should invest more resources in working at a grassroots level, such as with defectors already privy to the military’s information warfare tactics, to improve its detection mechanisms.

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