Burma Army Threats Force KNU to Stop COVID-19 Medical Checks in Thaton

Monday, May 4, 2020

A spokesperson from the Karen National Union’s (KNU) Brigade 1 in Thaton District has said that the organization has been instructed by the Burmese government to remove two COVID-19 medical checkpoints in KNU territory.

Karen State’s border affairs minister, Col Myo Min Naung, sent an official letter to the KNU on April 17 urging Brigade 1 to follow the guidelines of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), to which the KNU is a signatory. He also ordered the KNU not to get involved in the government’s administration.

The government formed a committee on April 27 to negotiate with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in addressing COVID-19; the KNU has described the effort as “a bit late.”

NMG interviewed Padoh Saw Soe Myint, secretary of the KNU’s Brigade 1, about the newly formed committee, the order regarding the KNU’s checkpoints in Thaton, and the tension between the KNU and the Burma Army in Brigade 1’s territory.

The Burma Army ordered the KNU’s Brigade 1 to remove medical checkpoints in Thaton District. Can you explain the situation?

The wife of the commander of [the Tatmadaw’s] Southeastern Command came to offer robes to monks in Mawlay village yesterday. Our soldiers blocked her car and told them to get out of the car to take their body temperature. The wife of the commander didn’t get out of the car. The driver got out of the car and our medical staff took his body temperature. Our soldier also asked for the national ID card numbers [of the passengers]. The wife of the commander went to the monastery to offer robes at 11:00 a.m. She returned at 12:05 noon. The Burma Army ordered us to remove the medical checkpoint at around 2:30 p.m. They told us to remove the checkpoint and the nearby bamboo hut [that we set up]. We replied that we wouldn’t remove the checkpoint. We would report it to the higher-ups. The Burma Army told us to completely remove it from the area. That evening, their troops came into the area. Our troops and their troops were stationed on each side of the road. The next morning, they withdrew from the area.

Where is the KNU’s medical checkpoint? What is the update on it?

It is located in Hton Bolay Chauk Mai Kon in Thaton Township. If they continue to move forward, the consequences will be bad. We have stopped doing medical checks at this checkpoint. They told us to stop all functions there for three days. Then they told us to remove our huts. We wouldn’t remove our huts. Currently, there is nobody there. Nobody is left at the checkpoint. Our troops are deployed around the area. Our medical staff cannot work doing medical check-ups there.

Have you removed the medical checkpoint because the army came into the area?

Yes, it’s true. We removed it because the army came into the area. Their officer came to see us there, and requested that we stop running our medical checkpoint. If we were to continue it, the consequences could not be good. We were also worried that something would happen if we didn’t stop it. To avoid creating fear among local people, we removed the checkpoint. If we used force to solve problems after signing the NCA, it wouldn’t fit with the guidelines of the NCA. People would be scared. Mutual trust between us would decrease. Using force to resolve problem is not a good choice. If we can negotiate to solve problems, it will be good for both of us. With orders from above, [the Burma Army] put pressure on us through the use of force. We didn’t respond to them. The didn’t do anything to us.

How many checkpoints have you already removed?

We removed a medical checkpoint in Htonbolay village in Thaton Township, and two checkpoints in Zaymathwe village in Htongmu village tract in Paung Township, and another checkpoint in Paung township. We removed these medical checkpoints three days ago. The army told us to remove those checkpoints. We don’t want to have any conflict, so we removed them, but local people will suffer. Setting up these medical checkpoints was not politically motivated, it was only for medical matters.

Did the KNU headquarters negotiate around this?

Our headquarters regularly communicate with us. We have reported the situation on the ground to our headquarters. We also reported it to the COVID-19 response group. We haven’t received any orders. They said that they would hold a meeting and then they would reply to us. I already reported the case that happened in Paung Township. Currently, we haven’t received any orders.

It has been said that the accusations of NCA violations are because the KNU soldiers were armed and wearing military uniforms while working at the medical checkpoints. Can you respond to this?

Our soldiers carried their weapons when they were working at medical checkpoints. We could not stop local people at checkpoints for medical check up. That’s why we needed to wear military uniform. Wearing military uniforms and carrying weapons do not mean we are threatening people. We are not going to terrorize anyone. Our soldiers were polite and humble when they were doing medical checks at the checkpoints. We requested that local people stop their motorbikes and cars at the checkpoint and we urged them to wash their hands. We didn’t create any military conflict. We have stayed there for so long, not just a couple of days. The problem only occurred in the area after the wife of the commander visited.

The government said that the KNU has disturbed their civil administration of the area. What’s your response to this?

We have not disturbed the government’s administrative matters. We have been deployed in that area since we signed the NCA. We have always stayed there. We have not disturbed their administration. Frankly, I want to say that the Burma Army has disturbed our regional administration.

The Burma Army told the KNU to follow the guidelines of the NCA when working on COVID-19 preventive measures. What do you say to this?

Regarding the NCA guidelines, the government’s health department has come to hold discussions with our health department. We have discussed how to cooperate and run healthcare matters in these areas. At the same time, the government’s health department cannot cover these areas. We think that we should do something there. A medical team from our headquarters came to train our medical staff on COVID-19 issues. We have had the name and phone number of a medical doctor in the area. If we find patients suspected of having COVID-19, we will try to contact the government’s health department. Then we will transfer the patients to the government’s health department. The problem is that the government’s health department hasn’t contacted us for discussion. In practice, the virus has infected people across the country. We are also worried about this.

Regarding the fight against COVID-19, the government formed a negotiation committee to cooperate with EAOs. Did the government inform the KNU about it?

The government informed the KNU headquarters about it. We have already received a letter about it. I went to see Maj Aung Ko Ko [of the Burma Army] and showed him the letter. He replied that if KNU wants to cooperate, KNU needs to seek permission from the office of the NRPC [National Reconciliation and Peace Center]. The KNU will also need to seek permission from four members of the committee. Then the KNU will also need to seek permission from the Burma Army and the state government. After that, the KNU can set up medical checkpoints and do medical check-ups. If not, the KNU can’t do it.

There are many steps in the process for cooperation between the government and the KNU. What difficulties in the KNU facing?

The problem is that the army has ordered us to remove the medical checkpoints. The virus has spread across the world and our country. For us, we need to do some preventive measures to fight COVID-19. So we are trying to seek a way to solve this problem. We have already reported our difficulties to our headquarters. We will seek directives from our headquarters. With the directives from above, we will continue to implement it.

What do you have to say about the formation of government’s COVID-19 negotiation/cooperation committee with EAOs?

I think it’s a bit late. The government should have formed it to cooperate with EAOs when the virus outbreak began in China. In my opinion, the government should have formed the committee in advance, before the virus spread through our country.

This interview was edited lightly for clarity.