By Francis Wade
Thailand’s Deputy PM Chalerm Yubamrung let slip recently that Karen rebel leader Maj Gen Na Kham Mwe, who controls territory along Burma’s border with Thailand, is among the country’s top five most wanted men. Na Kham Mwe heads a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which until mid-2010 had been closely allied with the Burmese government.
The roughly 1,500 troops under Na Kham Mwe’s command operate unofficial checkpoints along the border, and control a small amount of cross-border trade to and from Thailand. Chalerm accuses the leader of trafficking drugs into Thailand, something he denies (he has on several occasions invited both Thai and US drugs’ officials to inspect his territory).
The charges are somewhat perplexing, given that they stem from a 2003 incident that allegedly links Na Kham Mwe to a drugs bust. Accounts of the bust vary – some claim an unknown woman crossing into Thailand was found with significant quantities of methamphetamine, which she told police was sourced from the DKBA, while others claim it was a family member who was arrested.
As the Irrawaddy points out, however, Thailand’s drugs agency appears to be “working on the assumption that [he] was the leader of the DKBA at that time” whereas in fact he was a commander of one of many factions that existed prior to the 2010 split. The ostensible head of the DKBA during its pro-government years, Chit Thu, is now firmly allied to the Burmese government, and heads one of its border militias north of Mae Sot. Thailand has not mentioned him at all.
Na Kham Mwe himself has asked why no attempt was made to arrest him when the charges first surfaced in 2003 (the DKBA would have frequently traveled to Thailand for meetings with local Thai officials). No one seems to know, and it’s easy to fall into conspiratorial musings, but it smacks of a politically-driven manhunt.
One approach to this is that the Burmese government may have requested Thailand’s help in squeezing the ethnic armies along the border that are refusing to sign ceasefires (the DKBA being one of the remaining few), and a drugs pretext would generate the most support from Thai law enforcement officials and politicians now saddling up closer to the Burmese government (Chalerm has something of a platform to operate from with the 2003 listing). Moreover, while Thailand in the past used border groups as a buffer against its traditional enemy, the Burmese army, the days of needing to keep Burma at arms length are fading, and with it the incentive to support and allow border armies to flourish.
A second is that Thailand is trying to reassert an anti-drugs crusade in the wake of Yingluck’s rise to power last year (and Thaksin’s impending return). Directing attention towards Na Kham Mwe could divert from failures elsewhere (namely Shan druglord Naw Kham, whose close relations with the Thai military resulted in the deaths of 13 Chinese soldiers).
Whether Na Kham Mwe is indeed involved in drugs is hard to tell, and he may well be. Narcotics do cross the Karen state border with Thailand, although quantities pale in comparison with those coming from Shan state. Like other ethnic armies, both pro-government and opposition, he may indeed levy a tax on traffickers (although this practice is normally reserved for ‘civilian’ opium growers and producers; methamphetamine, Burma’s most lucrative black-market export, is manufactured and distributed within and by tightly controlled rackets, and it’s government-allied cliques that usually control outflows).
One should also bear in mind the carelessness with which Chalerm’s de facto boss, former Thai PM Thaksin Sinawatra, labeled and executed suspected drug traffickers (and users) in the early 2000s, often on highly spurious charges (and ones that were sometimes politically-motivated, especially in the case of finding an excuse to send more troops into the insurgency-plagued south).
If Thailand is serious about the charges, then a thorough inspection of Na Kham Mwe’s territory will take place. One gets the feeling however that Burmese troops, feeding off Thai encouragement and intelligence (Thai army and police have long been in cahoots with Burmese ethnic armies) may soon close in on the leader, which is likely to result in a very bloody battle.