Nearly three years have passed since the military junta overthrew the government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar, and the People's Defence Forces (PDF) under the Government of National Unity (NUG) and the local ethnic armed groups ("NLD") in various parts of Myanmar have continued without causing major waves until October 10 this year.
At the same time, the "Three Brothers Alliance", comprising the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA), launched the so-called "Operation 27" to capture passages, towns and other military targets in the northern part of the border state on the China-Myanmar border, with unprecedented success, and even the junta leader Min Aung Hlaing warned that the country could fall into secession.
The success of Operation 1027 was quickly echoed by other militias, from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State in northern Myanmar to the Karen armed forces in Kayah State on the border between eastern Myanmar and Thailand, and from the Chin-State Civilian Armed Forces in western Myanmar to the Arakan Army in Rakhine State. They are working with the Burmese people, who oppose the junta, and even threaten the Burmese heartland, just over 1027 kilometers from the junta's capital, Naypyitaw, which seems to have no ability to turn the tide on the ground other than to respond with airstrikes.
According to the analysis, behind this huge offensive against the junta camp is the struggle for the interests of the various civilian and local armed forces, the popular aspirations of the national unity government, and the dissatisfaction of the Chinese government with the military junta's ineffectiveness in cleaning up telecommunications fraud syndicates. Whatever the reasons behind it, a major feature of the offensive was the cooperation of the anti-government Burmese and other ethnic minorities. This series of articles will introduce the origin and status of the various militias involved in the war in the Burmese national system. This is the third article.


Back in the aftermath of the 2021 military coup, the National Unity Advisory Council (NUCC) under the anti-junta National Unity Government was joined by the Karen National Union (KNU). The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a militia under the Karen National Alliance's command of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), was fighting with the military and was retaliated by the military with air strikes.

Following Operation 1027, the Karen also quickly entered the fighting, launching the so-called Operation 11 on November 11 in response, attacking Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, reportedly killing 1111 junta soldiers in the first 200 days of the war. The Karen militia will be a major force in the anti-junta camp this time.

In 2021, members of the Karen National Union (KNU) protested against the Tatmadaw army's seizure of power in a coup d'état in areas under its armed control. (Reuters)

The Karen are one of the eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar and the third largest ethnic group in Myanmar in terms of population. The Karen ethnic group has a large population, and its language, customs, and economic production mode are quite different from the main ethnic group, the Burmese ethnic group. Since the beginning of the last century, clashes between the Karen people and the Tatmadaw have been a constant occurrence. However, there is a huge disparity in combat strength between the two sides, and the Karen army has not achieved a significant military superiority, but it has never surrendered to the Burmese army, and only signed an armistice agreement, but has not promised to disarm.

The reason why the Karen armed forces are able to confront the Burmese army today can be traced back to their more than 100 years of history since the British colonial era.

The Karen people are subdivided into several branches with their own languages and customs. However, the identity of the Karen people in the broad sense began with the conversion of some people to Christianity during the British colonial period, and was shaped by years of deliberately artificial colonial policies. Therefore, "Karen" in Karen is an English translation of the Burmese word ကရင်. Of course, not all Karen people convert to Christianity, and many Karen people in the mountainous countryside still practice Buddhism or indigenous primitive religions. This division of religious factions within the same ethnic group led to the later 20th century when the Karen people were divided into different ethnic groups.

Karen girl in traditional costume, 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since the British colonized Burma in the 19th century, the British government has adopted the usual divide-and-rule strategy of ethnic minorities in the colonies, by empowering ethnic minorities (e.g. acquiescing in the formation of militias) in an attempt to counterbalance the Burmese population and their military power. The independent national consciousness of the Karen people in the southeast has since sprouted.

After the end of World War II, the issue of sovereignty in Southeast Asia during the post-Japanese occupation period was hotly discussed. At that time, the Burmese Provisional Government led by General Aung San (i.e., the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) signed the "Panglong Agreement" with the leaders of the minority people, agreeing to fight for independence from British colonial rule and establish a unified Union of Burma.

Karen soldiers sit in a pickup truck loaded with guns near Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, on November 2023, 11. (Reuters)

The assassination of General Aung San in 1947 plunged Burma into political chaos, and although independence was barely achieved the following year and a federal constitution was written, the issue of ethnic minorities remained unresolved. Especially in the Karen region in the southeast, when the Union of Myanmar was established, the Karen people's demand for independence was not met much, and the British government had no intention of fulfilling its previous promise to the people of the Karen region to establish an independent state.

As a result, after Burma's independence in 1948, Karen forces launched an offensive against the new government, and in 1949 they even besieged the then capital, Yangon. It was not until 1952 that the government established the Kayin State on the Burma-Thai border, but it covered only a quarter of the entire Burmese Karen population, a far cry from the Kayin aspirations of the Karen for national rights.

The Karen are mainly scattered in eastern and southeastern Myanmar and a small part of northwestern Thailand (dark red in the picture). (Wikimedia Commons)

The unresolved ethnic contradictions in the southeast have led to continuous armed conflicts in Kayin State for more than half a century. Although in 2015, KNDO, one of the Karen National Alliance's Mindi Armed Forces (KNDO), signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military junta led by the enlightened military Thein Sein, pro-government forces and Karen militias in Kayin State still clashed from time to time, and the disarmament of both sides has not been achieved.

After the military coup in 2021, the Karen National Alliance, which had been fighting for more than <> years, saw an opportunity to cooperate with anti-military Burmese protesters, taking in many Burmese urban people, providing them with military training and weapons, and forming multiple brigades. They carry the banner of the People's Defence Forces, but they are under the command of the Karen National Liberation Army. After completing their military training, some returned to the Burmese core to fight, expanding the power emanating from the Karen people's local forces beyond their traditional sphere of influence.

The highly educated Burmese, who came from the cities, also supplemented the Karen army's existing deficiencies with their expertise in medical and other areas, allowing them to resist the junta more effectively.

Today's Karen National Union can be said to be the epitome of the unity of the militia and the anti-military Burmese forces. Of course, we don't know if this unity will ultimately defeat the junta, but this historic cross-ethnic front has certainly posed the greatest challenge the junta has ever faced.

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