What drives Brig Gen Saw La Bwe, the commander of the DKBA’s 5th Brigade?

Posted: July 15, 2011 in News

The exact motive of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army’s (DKBA) 5th Brigade and its charismatic and controversial leader Brig Gen Saw La Bwe is the most talked about subject among Burma’s armed resistance and independence groups.

On Nov 7, the date of Burma’s first “election” in 20 years, Brig Gen Saw _ also known as Na Kam Mui _ thrust himself into the limelight when his troops seized the Burmese border town of Myawaddy and engaged in fighting with the Burmese army the following day.

It was a provocative move from Na Kam Mui, who changed his mind after earlier agreeing to join the Border Guard Force (BGF) which aims to bring all the ceasefire groups under the junta’s control. The other four DKBA brigades joined the BGF before the election, which was ordered by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The DKBA was formed in 1994 after the defection of some Buddhist commanders and their troops from the Christian-dominated Karen National Union (KNU). The split centred around religious disputes, especially the row over the building of the Myit Zone Zedi Buddhist pagoda near the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw. Na Kam Mui, who was at that time a KNU Colonel, defected in 1995.

Maj Gen Timothy Laklem, KNU/KNLA-Peace Council.

Manerplaw, just over the Burmese border from Mae Sot district in Tak province, was the headquarters of the KNU and at least 25 other groups. They were attacked in January, 1995, and overrun by the Burmese army after the Buddhist defectors showed the Burmese army how to penetrate Manerplaw. It was perceived as a major betrayal of the KNU and other independence groups by the DKBA.

With his chequered past, some members of armed resistance groups _ speaking on condition of anonymity _ expressed unease over Na Kam Mui becoming a major player in the resistance movement.

Older KNU members said they will never forgive their Buddhist members for betraying them at Manerplaw, which was an enormous setback for the entire independence movement.

“He has a long-time relationship with one young KNU commander who signed a treaty with him a few years ago. Now he wants to work more closely with the KNU, not to help the Karen people but for his own personal interests,” said one KNU commander.

“If Na Kam Mui is sincere, he should have immediately renamed his group because this name is associated with a lot of bad things done to the Karen people during the past 15 years.

“Taking over Myawaddy on Nov 7 was good timing and an excellent opportunity for him to show off, to gain popularity, and to score few points with the KNU and other groups that applauded him, like the Shan State Army-South, led by Lt Gen Yawd Serk.

“Of course, he knew he couldn’t hold the town for too long. It was a clever move. You can’t hold Myawaddy for a month or even for a few days because the Burmese army will attack you with all they’ve got. You can’t win. That’s why we use guerrilla warfare.”

KNU Deputy Foreign Minister Brig Gen Hsar Gay.

He believes that Na Kam Mui and his KNU friend were behind the incidents in Myawaddy and in Three Pagodas Pass where there was fighting after the election that occurred almost simultaneously, despite the two places being hundreds of kilometres apart.

“The DKBA has no presence at Three Pagoda Pass. About 200 KNU troops were involved with some elements of the New Mon State Party,” the commander concluded.

Whether he’s loved or loathed, it’s generally agreed Na Kam Mui is an influential businessman and smart operator.

Since the DKBA was formed, the KNU, other groups and even the Thai authorities have accused it of various crimes, including human and drug trafficking, smuggling and extortion.

However, not all resistance leaders speak negatively about Na Kam Mui.

KNU Deputy Foreign Minister Brig Gen Hsar Gay said “It’s important that we have a good understanding with Na Kam Mui and his people. We are, in fact, cooperating but we don’t yet have an official agreement because we have to see how we can align ourselves politically with him and we have to make sure that we will pursue common political goals. “He won’t become a big player, but he will be one of the players. It all depends on the agreement that the KNU can reach with him. Of course, it will weaken the ex-DKBA forces and their base because it is the first time in their history that someone left them.”

When asked how the KNU can accept and cooperate with Na Kam Mui after his past actions, Brig Gen Hsar said things had changed and they had to deal with the current reality. “Now we have to bring both groups together because it will be good for the unity of the people. That’s why we haven’t signed an agreement with him yet because we have to settle certain political issues first to see whether we will pursue common political goals.”

Brig Gen Hsar said under an official agreement they would have to cooperate both militarily and politically. “If we start closely cooperating with them, we will have to see how our allies react and how they can be brought in. There must be a political consistency among us.”

Maj Gen Dr Timothy Laklem, head of Foreign and Diplomatic Relations at the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council said despite the incorporation of the four other regiments into the BGF, the DKBA still exists under the command of Na Kam Mui.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Brig Gen Saw La Bwe flanked by other DKBA leaders.

He said the fighting between the DKBA and the Burmese army on Nov 7 was to be expected. ”It wasn’t a set up to show something,” he said. ” The regime forced voters to vote for the Union Solidarity and Development Association. Whether it is the DKBA, KNU or our group, we Karen are all together as one. It is our Karen area. We all live in Karen State. It doesn’t belong to the SPDC.”

Maj Gen Laklem then produced an email he said was from Na Kam Mui in which the commander had refused a new ultimatum from the newly-appointed Eastern Com mander, Lt Gen Tun Ne Lin to join the BGF.

In an interview with Na Kam Mui published in Spectrum on Dec 13, 2009, he said that most of his people were happy to join the BGF.

”Development along the border is our main objective because we want our people to be prosperous,” Na Kam Mui told Spectrum. ”After joining the BGF, we can receive salaries, cars, rations, food, medical help as well as uniforms and ammunition from the Burmese government.

”I’ve been here many years waiting for this to come, so that we don’t have to carry the burden of looking after our army. We should accept anything that is good for our people. We’ve been staying along the border, acting as an unofficial border guard force and I’m waiting for it to be recognised legally. The DKBA has had a military alliance with the Burmese government since early 1994, and it has worked well so far.”

However, Maj Gen Laklem said the junta started to apply pressure on Na Kam Mui to join the BGF at the beginning of this year. ”After he defected about three months ago, one SPDC commander told him: ‘Do you want to be a friend, an enemy, or a slave’?” Maj Gen Laklen recounted. ”His response was: ‘If you treat me as a friend, I am a friend; if you treat me as an enemy, I am your enemy; if you treat me as a slave, I will treat you as a slave.”’

U Aye Saung, Secretary General of the People’s Liberation Front, said of Na Kam Mui: ”Now he has done something bad to the SPDC that damaged its reputation, so I have to support him. We should forget the past.”

Saw Kwe Htoo Win, chairman of the KNU Mergui-Tavoy district said that some DKBA soldiers don’t want to join the BGF nor abandon their name.

”I believe that Na Kam Mui wants to be independent from both the SPDC and the KNU, but prefers to work with the latter. I don’t know if he can be trusted because I have never had a relationship with him. I don’t know his ideas and background. But if he fights the SPDC then we have to trust him and work with him.”


E By Maxmilian Wechsler THE LAST HOLDOUT ? NOT STANDING DOWN: Brig Gen Saw La Bwe has refused to be integrated with the Border Guard Force.

Brig Gen Saw La Bwe, also known as Na Kam Mui, is commander of the 5th Brigade of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). He refused to be integrated into the Border Guard Force (BGF) as ordered by Burma’s Ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and defected several months ago with his troops.

Since then he has come under pressure from the SPDC, with a large financial reward offered for information leading to his capture _ dead or alive.

Na Kam Mui was also recently given an ultimatum by the SPDC to join the BGF or face attack. He rejected the “offer” and vowed to fight if confronted.

He also recently joined hands with a former enemy, the Karen National Union (KNU), and is on good terms with other Karen opposition armed groups that could increase their military capability.

Q: Can you briefly explain the DKBA’s situation?

A: The Burmese regime is trying to swallow up the identity of all the ethnic groups through the BGF programme to use ethnic forces as a shield and protect and maintain the long-term survival of its dictatorship. The reason I refused to join the BGF is that the regime has never had any good intentions for all the peoples in Burma.

In my 10 years of experience, they always say one thing but do another. They can’t be trusted. I do not want to see the continued suffering of my Karen and all those who live under the oppressive rule of the regime.

We are standing with all Karen groups that carry the patriotic spirit for justice and freedom of all Karens, whether DKBA, Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army [KNU/KNLA], Karen Peace Force, KNU/KNLA-Peace Council [KNU/KNLA-PC], Thandaun Peace Force or other ethnic resistance groups who are opposing cruelty and oppression. In my conscience, I’d rather fight to defend the rights of the people than become a slave dog of this cruel regime.

Q: What is your current status?

A: The fighting will most likely continue with combined efforts from all Karen resistance forces. We will not fight aimlessly, that would harm the innocent. But we will have specific targets to weaken the regime to defend the innocent against violations. I feel very sorry to see young Burmese soldiers who have no choice but to accept their superiors’ orders and become victims of the cruelty of war. I deeply sympathise with parents and families who lose their young men. The regime has created this problem and has to be held accountable and responsible.

Q: The SPDC has offered a reward for your capture. What is your comment?

A: Anyone right-thinking person would know this warrant has no credibility and is not legitimate. The whole world knows that the real criminals are the regime, not me, I’m simply protecting and standing up for the freedom of my own Karen and all peoples in Burma. I believe that no Thai authority has such a low-class mentality to follow the order of the regime.

Q: Why did the DKBA fight the Burmese troops simultaneously on two fronts on election day? Who started the fighting?

A: On Nov 8, fighting broke out in Myawaddy, a border town in Karen State, close to Mae Sot. The junta’s troops pointed guns at people, forcing them to vote. In response, I sent troops to protect the innocent citizens. While we were monitoring the voting area, the junta troops spoke aggressively to my troops, trying to force us to leave and began to shoot at us. They began shelling the middle of the public area and even on the Thai side. We had to return fire to protect the civilians and ourselves. During the crossfire, we assessed that it would be better for us to pull out our troops from Myawaddy to protect innocent people.

Q: Do you associate with the KNU/KNLA and KNU/KNLA-PC?

A: I associate with all Karen groups who believe in freedom and justice for all Karen people.

Q: What are your plans?

A: I will continue to struggle alongside all ethnic forces and all peoples in Burma until this regime is removed and held accountable for what it has done against the citizens of Burma. I will continue until I see a true democratic society in Burma.

Q: What do you think about Aung San Suu Kyi’s release?

A: I am thrilled to see her released. At the same time I am concerned and worry about the dirty game that the regime will play, even to the extent of a possible assassination attempt. They have attempted to do this before, and I am certain they will not hesitate to try again.

Q: What is your opinion of the Burmese election?

A: I can say on behalf of myself and all the ethnic groups, including many people from abroad, that we knew the intentions of the regime before the elections. I have stated many times in the media that this regime will never have good intentions or the ability to bring change for the country to move forward. They think they own the country and can do whatever they like. This election is a game the regime is playing to tease the international community.

Q: Would you accept Mrs Suu Kyi as prime minister?

A: Of course, she has gained the majority vote from the people and deserves the legitimate role chosen by the people. Any democratic country that believes in the principle of democracy should not accept this regime as a legitimate government.

Q: What do you think about armed struggle? Should it stop? Is it worth?

A: The nature of a military regime is not to understand the language of diplomacy or political talks, but guns. The regime uses guns cruelly against its own people. We have guns to protect innocent lives and to secure peace.

Q: Are you going to join with the KNU/KNLA-PC or KNU/KNLA?

A: We are the same blood … from one family, although we have different names, we all fight against a common enemy which is attempting the genocide of all Karen.

Q: Do you want an independent Karen State, and if so, will you fight until you get one?

A: Of course, we want an independent Karen State but it might be too early as the international community still wants to see a federal union and we currently agree to that.

However, all the ethnic groups, including the Karen, are sick and tired of the discrimination and brutality of the regime for more than six decades. They have been trying to swallow up the identity of ethnic groups with their Myanmar-isation ideology for example: Changing the name of Burma to Myanmar; changing the union flag to the one star [Myanmar] flag without any consideration or discussion with the ethnic groups or even the National League for Democracy. This is a part of their strategy to wipe out all the ethnic groups including Karen.

Burma is not owned by this military regime or the Myanmar race alone. We desire independence like East Timor. However, we still want to give Aung San Suu Kyi a chance to reconcile all the ethnic groups to establish a true Democratic Federal Union of Burma, the same as her father, but based on equality for all.

If that fails then for the sake of long-lasting peace, all the ethnic groups will combine together and claim independence for their respective states.


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