Fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Burma Army broke out twice on May 6, 2020 over Covid-19 screening posts in the Northern Mutraw (Papun) district of Karen State.
The Karen National Union’s Department of Organizing and Information confirmed armed clashes at Wa Thoe Kho and Pha Lo in Lu Thaw Township, Mutraw district involving Burma Army Infantry Battalion 405 under its Military Operation Command #8 and local based KNLA soldiers.
The fighting were reportedly fuelled by the KNU’s efforts to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic by setting up screening posts at its controlled townships boundaries – the Burma Army regarded the posts as part of a KNU political tactic.
A KNU-DOI’s statement said the conflicts started after the Burma Army deputy commander from IB 405 came with soldiers to the two screening posts ordering health workers and personnel from Karen National Police Force (KNPF) to stop working and leave the posts. The health workers left fearing reprisals and the Burma Army dismantled and burned the screening posts.
Padoh Saw Nyunt Win, head of the Karen Department of Health and Welfare in Mutraw district spoke to Karen News about the incident.
“On May 6, the Burma Army came to the post and told our health workers that the place is in their controlled territory and could not work there. They forced our health workers out and they burned the screening post to the ground. Tensions increased and armed conflict broke out later in the day,” said Padoh Saw Nyunt Win.
Major Saw Kler Doh, spokeperson for the KNLA 5th Brigade of Mutraw (Papun) district said that Burma Army’s action showed they don’t care for the welfare or health of people.
“We should be able to do these social services it has nothing to do with [military] administration,” Major Saw Kler Doh said. “We don’t know why they want to stop everything we do and try to dominate us in every matter. They haven’t done anything to prevent this pandemic, so we did in our area – their actions are not acceptable.”
Since the beginning of 2020, the stalled peace process has seen several armed clashes in Northern Karen State. These have been caused by tensions between frontline troops over territory. The government’s COVID-19 pandemic response in ethnic states have caused the peace process to fracture further.
On May 4, the Team for Coordinating Framework for NCA Implementation of the 10 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), who are signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), held its 10th meeting on-line, in hope of resuming activities of the peace process, which had to be suspended due to COVID-19 pandemic.
EAOs leaders discussed about the resumption of the Fourth Union Peace Conference 21st Century Pinlong, which was agreed by the two sides due to be held, but has been postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 8-points agreed at the 8th Joint Implementing Coordination Meeting (JICM) for the implementation of NCA held on January 8, there was an agreement to hold the Fourth 21st Century Pinlong Conference during the first four months of 2020.
Among the discussion points for the April 27 meeting were how consultation, coordination and cooperation between the EAOs and the Burma Government formed coordination committee for COVID-19 pandemic.
The formation of the ‘Committee for Coordination and Cooperation with the EAOs for COVID-19 Prevention, Control and Treatment’ was announced by the President’s Office and it said in a statement the committee was necessary if it was to be effective in the prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19 in ethnic regions.
The Ethnic Health Committee (EHC) put out a statement on May 6, welcoming the Government’s formation of the coordination committee and said despite being a sign of recognition of the roles played by Ethnic Health Organizations (EHOs) in their respective areas, it urged the government to halt its military operations in ethnic areas. The EHC said to “effectively contain COVID-19 in EAOs administrative areas, the government and military must stop their attacks in ethnic areas and cease threatening or obstructing the [health] work of EAOs.”
The EHC statement also said “it is urgent local and international donors begin providing funding direct to EHOs for COVID-19 containment since EHOs are on the frontline and are the only workers for containment of the disease in EAOs administrative areas.”
The KNU Mutraw District officials said that they had set up a total of 14 screening posts in their area, in accordance with directive from Central level, for the prevention of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, two of the 14 posts were burned down by the Burma Army.