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Myanmar opposition advances on key border town

FILE - Trainees take part in military exercises with the Karen National Union (KNU) Brigade 6, an armed rebel group in eastern Karen state on May 9, 2021, amid a heightened conflict with Myanmar's military following the February coup.
FILE - Trainees take part in military exercises with the Karen National Union (KNU) Brigade 6, an armed rebel group in eastern Karen state on May 9, 2021, amid a heightened conflict with Myanmar's military following the February coup.

In the latest setback for Myanmar’s military rulers, resistance forces have seized nearly total control of a key border town straddling the main overland trade route between Myanmar and Thailand.

The junta’s defeat in Myawaddy town on Myanmar’s eastern border follows previous territorial losses in the north along the Chinese border and in the western state of Rakhine, bordering Bangladesh.

The armed wing of the Karen National Union, or KNU, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed organization and group, says it is now in control of most of the town and pursuing remaining junta forces in the area.

Myanmar has been in chaos since General Min Aung Hlaing and his military forces overthrew the democratically elected government in February 2021. The coup sparked widespread armed resistance by a loose alliance of ethnic groups and civilian-led defense forces.

Most of the conflict has been confined to rural areas. But on Friday the KNU announced it had seized a major junta base in Myawaddy with the surrender of 617 military personnel and family members.

The KNU says it now controls most of the town, which sits on the main highway between Thailand and Myanmar. Billions of dollars’ worth of goods pass through it each year.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, spokesperson for the KNU, told VOA early Tuesday that the junta’s 275 Battalion is “still in Myawaddy town with their division commander with them. It might be not more than 300 or 400 [personnel] left. We don’t hear anything about [new] fighting yet, negotiations are continuing.”

The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar news outlet, reported later Tuesday that the Karen National Liberation Army and its allies had launched an attack on the battalion, the last junta forces in the area.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee said things are in place for the KNU to take over administrative duties, adding that junta forces who surrendered in Myawaddy are still being accounted for. He said the KNU are bracing for a heavy response from the military.

“Usually, they make a heavy retaliation with the airstrikes. They always say, ‘Whenever you take a place, it doesn't matter, you can take the territory, but we just have to destroy the place so you can’t set up your administration.’ So, we need to be very careful about it,” he said.

The ruling State Administrative Council, or SAC, has violently cracked down on dissidents since the coup, with more than 4,800 people killed and more than 20,000 people detained, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, a monitoring group in Thailand.

But the military has been on the defensive since a coalition of resistance forces staged a sudden counteroffensive in October. Armed ethnic groups captured dozens of military-held townships and posts in northern Shan State, while the ethnic Arakan Army has made significant gains in Rakhine state in the west.

In another sign of changing fortunes, Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, or NUG, claimed responsibility last week for more than a dozen drone attacks on junta bases in the capital, Naypyidaw.

“The SAC is facing multiple battlefield defeats, in Karen State most dramatically, with the possible takeover of the border town of Myawaddy after months of fighting,” said David Scott Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst. “On the ground, the SAC is in retreat in multiple locations, in Kachin, Arakan, and Karenni and Shan [states].”

But, Mathieson told VOA, the military “has a large country to retreat into, with a network of bases and arms production. They may be losing but this doesn’t indicate they’re finished just yet. Their reaction to further losses or the spread of fighting into central Myanmar will be extreme force. For the SAC, savagery is a strategy.”

In a bid to stem its run of defeats, the military recently activated a national conscription law with the aim of drafting 60,000 new recruits a year, including 5,000 by the end of April.

The law is hugely unpopular, with many young people seeking to avoid the draft. Many have fled to Thailand, which has taken in an estimated 45,000 Burmese refugees since the coup in 2021. Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said this week that Thailand is preparing to receive 100,000 more.