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At War in Karen State: The Ongoing Conflict in Burma

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For some, mentioning “Burma” conjures memories of the OSS or General Slim’s 14th Army in the fight against the Japanese. With others, it might evoke distant television images of the 1988 or 2007 protests, where the Burmese junta gunned down unarmed protesters in Yangon. But to the Karen people in the eastern part of the country and along the Thai border, there’s no debate in this matter. Seventy years of ongoing conflict speak for themselves in that discussion. With their backs to Thailand, and a dense and mountainous jungle to fight in, the Karen continue their struggle against oppression with the reigning junta’s army, or “Tatmadaw” in Burmese.

The war in Karen State is similar to many low-intensity guerrilla conflicts around the world. The conventional forces have the technology, aircraft, and numbers, while the guerrillas have the support of the locals, knowledge of the land, and most importantly, the will to never surrender. Decades of literature have been written about the guerrilla fighting in the Vietnam War, but scant attention has been paid to the plight of the Karen in their struggle since 1948. In this void of publicity, the war has a number of unique aspects that have been severely under studied in English language publications.

Fighting in Karen State has entered a stalemate since the cease-fire declared by both sides in 2012. But this hasn’t stopped the Tatmadaw from encroaching on Karen villages and land, continuing to turn villagers into IDPs (Internally Displaced People), who sometimes flee, spilling over into neighboring Thailand. Today, the important tactical decisions actually revolve around bulldozers, bridges, and roads. Part of the cease-fire agreement was that the Burmese couldn’t build roads in certain areas of Karen State, and couldn’t have any motorized traffic on many existing ones (necessitating animals and porters to transport supplies).

This hasn’t stopped the Burmese from using bulldozers to slowly level out roads and even sneak construction crews in to lay down asphalt in the guise of spurring the economy. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) leadership knows without a doubt that the intent behind these roads are to strengthen Burmese logistics chains and roll in main battle tanks. This has forced KNLA forces to either disable these bulldozers with mines and IEDs, or try to shoot the drivers with precision rifle fire. This is the current state of affairs between the Burmese and the Karen, until all-out war flares up again, or there can be further peace negotiations.

Karen Small Arms

Karen armories are extraordinary examples of small arms well past their time, but still seeing active service. Predominately armed with surplus M16A1s from U.S. involvement in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam several decades previous, the Karen haven’t taken too much of a liking to Kalashnikov-patterned rifles due to the scarcity of ammunition in the region and the complexity of supply. Glances at the receivers of these M16A1s are jaw-dropping experiences for those familiar with the early history of the Stoner design. XM16E1s, Hydra-Matic Corps, and Harrington & Richardson roll stamps are all present among some Norinco M16 variants that have found their way into Karen State. Ultimax Mark IIIs, holdovers from Singaporean sales to Thailand in the late 1980s and 1990s, are still in use as light support weapons in KNLA platoons.

A Chinese RPG-2 with what’s claimed to be a United Wa State Army-produced grenade in use by the KNLA. The anti-personnel rocket has fins that fold around the tube of the grenade while it’s inserted in the muzzle of the launcher.

However, acquiring ammunition is a constant issue for many of the rebel armies along the border (unless they produce their own use, as is the case with the Wa and Kachin). On the black market, 5.56x45mm ammunition is around 30 Thai Baht per round (roughly one U.S. dollar), while 7.62x39mm ammunition runs twice that. Before M16s and AKMs, the Karen were and still are extremely fond of surplus U.S. M1 Carbines (affectionately called “Carbine” among the Karen). Unfortunately, the ammunition supply for KNLA Carbines was reduced when the U.S. stopped selling surplus .30-carbine ammunition to the Tatmadaw, and the Karen couldn’t rely on captured stocks. This severe lack of ammunition has led the KNLA to be conservative when engaging the Burmese in ambushes. One such tactic is to set off an ambush with a claymore, fire three accurate rounds at a Burmese patrol, then vanish into the jungle. Any more ammunition or ordnance expended than that and KNLA fighters could receive a scolding from their leadership due to ammunition costs.

This is an underbarrel grenade launcher taken off of a captured Burmese MA4 service rifle. Ingenious as the Karen are, they have carved a stock and forend for the launcher to clamp to in lieu of its former rifle hand guard attachment. The Burmese launcher is based on the Turkish T-40 design, wherein the trigger is actually the side button where one normally releases the tube on a U.S. M203.

Due to the campaign’s nature, anything that can’t be hand carried through jungle and over mountains is of little use to the Karen. Crew-served heavy machine guns and mortars are often swapped for M79s and RPG-7 launchers that can be humped under the brush with a minimal combat load. There are the occasional 7.62x54mmR SG43 medium machine guns that are kept in defensive positions, but even these are quite rare in the fight against the Burmese. The guerrilla warfare that the KNLA wage is one of quick, violent ambushes where fighters can quickly disperse into the jungle, often running full speed up or down mountains with nothing but rubber flip-flops or cheap tennis shoes.

A KNLA soldier on patrol in the vicinity of a Tatmadaw position. His M16A1 has a 4×32 Trijicon RCO mounted to the carrying handle of his rifle. Many of these optics are Chinese or Taiwanese knockoffs that can be purchased in street stalls or Airsoft shops in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. But there are certainly a few that were documented and were authentic.

Despite many of these deficiencies in arms and ammunition, the KNLA and the people of Karen State remain committed as they were in 1948 to claim an autonomous region within Burma. Elsewhere in the country, there are tens of thousands of indigenous people in similarly dire straits, fighting for some variant of independence or home rule from the Burmese government — the Shan State Army, Kachin Independence Army, Arakkan Army, and most recently, the Muslim Rohingya minority, just to name a few. While much of their struggle is ignored by the BBC or CNN, the indigenous tribal peoples of Burma continue their fight with a strong resolve, determined not to be enslaved by a vicious dictatorship.

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