Bangkok (AP) — Units of an ethnic militia in eastern Myanmar that is nominally part of the military have switched sides, allying themselves with the country’s pro-democracy movement, and have carried out attacks in recent weeks on army outposts and a police station, its members said.
The two Border Guard Forces units in Kayah state are believed to be the first military-affiliated militia units to change sides since the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.
The takeover was met with peaceful nationwide protests, but after security forces cracked down with lethal force many local armed resistance groups formed and have been loosely organized into what is called the People’s Defense Force. They have allied themselves with major ethnic guerrilla groups in border regions that have carried out armed struggle for decades, seeking greater autonomy.
Kayah, which is the smallest of Myanmar’s seven states and dominated by the Karenni ethnic minority, has experienced intense conflict especially since the army seized power. The area borders Thailand and is not far from Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw.
There are about two dozen border guard units nationwide with a total of 10,000 armed personnel. The units were formed in 2009 from what had been autonomous ethnic insurgent groups that agreed to a truce with a previous military government.
The National Unity Government, a shadow civilian administration opposed to the military, said about 13,000 soldiers and police officers have defected to its side since the army seized power.
The two border guard units that have joined the resistance forces comprise mostly members of the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front, an ethnic guerrilla force formed in 1978 by breakaway members of the Karenni National Progressive Party, which has been fighting the central government for more than half a century and is the state’s main armed ethnic organization.
A KPNLF member told The Associated Press on Sunday that almost all of the troops in the two units, each with about 300 men, joined local resistance forces that recently destroyed four army outposts and a township police station in Mese in southeastern Kayah.
The member spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information from the group. Mese, where the guerrilla force is headquartered, is about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Naypyitaw.
He said some of his fellow guerrilla fighters quietly collaborated with local armed resistance forces even before the militia units openly joined the fighting against the army in Mese in mid-June.
Although the border units in Kayah were formally affiliated with the army, the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front had kept some distance from the military regime. A few days after the 2021 takeover, the group issued a statement decrying the military’s seizure of power and urging it to release political detainees.
Khu Nyay Reh, a Karenni National Progressive Party central committee member, on Saturday also confirmed the defection of the two units to the resistance side. He told the AP that the militia’s members could not tolerate the army killing their family members.
He said the military government responded to the defections by dropping bombs on one of the border guard bases and other locations, and by sending troops to Mese. He said about half of the township’s 6,800 people have fled into Thailand or are hiding in the jungle and nearby areas.
However, 18 soldiers from one of the last remaining major army outposts in Mese surrendered on Saturday and the resistance forces now control 80% of the town, Khu Nyay Reh said. His claim could not be independently confirmed.