A dispute over taxation on the highway to the Thai border prompted the Tatmadaw and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) to exchange fire in recent days, according to sources.
The fighting occurred on a stretch of Asian Highway 1 between the towns of Myawaddy, on the Thai border opposite Mae Sot, and Kawkareik, in Kayin State, closing transport on the road.
The first clashes were reported on the night of July 1, with the DKBA’s 907 battalion and the Tatmadaw’s 28, 230, 231 and 546 infantry battalions, and was continuing yesterday evening.
In addition to ground-level clashes, the DKBA said the Tatmadaw had fired more than 30 artillery shells at their camps near the highway on the night of July 1 and morning of July 2, leaving one DKBA soldier injured.
The Kayin armed group also said five government soldiers had been injured in the fighting, but the Tatmadaw could not be reached for comment.
Colonel Saw Maung Lay of the DKBA said yesterday that the Tatmadaw had warned the DKBA to move its troops away from the highway because the commander of South Eastern Region Command, based in Mawlamyine, Mon State, was due to pass along the road.
The Tatmadaw launched the attacks after the DKBA refused to move.
“We will not attack the Tatmadaw first, but we will defend ourselves,” he said.
While the highway is the main artery between Myanmar and Thailand, the section between Kawkareik and Myawaddy that crosses the Kayin State mountains is in poor condition. Traffic is one-way, alternating each day.
A number of Kayin ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Union, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council and the DKBA, as well as government-controlled Border Guard Forces, collect illegal tolls along the road.
Tension on the highway is far from a new development. On April 25, the DKBA detained the Kayin State chief minister, U Zaw Min, for several hours due to a dispute over permission to pass a DKBA checkpoint.
U Hla Maung Shwe, a senior adviser at the Myanmar Peace Center, said the government “had already announced that it will not allow [armed groups] to collect taxes along the road” and the fighting occurred because the DKBA refused to follow the instruction.
He said the group was facing problems because both its leader, Saw Lah Pwe, and deputy leader are abroad, and lower ranks are “weak in leadership”.
Saw Thaye Ni, a DKBA officer in the group’s Kawkareik liaison office, agreed that the group was having difficulties due to its leaders being abroad.
“We are just watching the situation and responding based on the circumstances because our leaders are not here at the moment,” he said.
Members of the KNU and the DKBA were expected to meet in Myawaddy last night or today to discuss the dispute over tolls on the highway, said Colonel Zorro, a KNU liaison officer based in Myawaddy.
They will then seek to negotiate with the government and the Tatmadaw over the issue.
“I am concerned that these problems will continue unless there are discussions between the government and groups on the Asian Highway,” said Col Zorro.