Fighting continues near Karen State road to Thai border, cutting off trade

Fighting in Kawkareik Township, Karen State, this week has severely hindered travel along  a key section of the Asian Highway, rendering it useless for carrying goods to and from the Thai border, according to traders.

A source working in commerce between the border towns of Myawaddy, Karen State, and Mae Sot, Thailand, told Myanmar Now that hundreds of trucks with commercial cargo are currently stranded along the highway.

The problem began after a bridge located about halfway between the towns of Kawkareik and Kyondoe was blown up on December 24, allegedly by anti-regime “terrorists,” according to official police reports.

“It’s now been nearly a week since the highway was first blocked. At first, half of the bridge was destroyed, so people had to use an alternate route. But then the military blocked the road with a 12-wheel truck and started shooting, so now no one can use it at all anymore,” the source said.

“This is our only job,” he added. “We don’t know what to do anymore if this keeps up.”

The military launched a series of assaults on December 15 against an alliance of anti-junta forces led by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an armed wing of the Karen National Union. Damage and disruption from the fighting have rendered the Asian Highway impassable for large commercial vehicles. 

Similar obstructions have occurred frequently on the Asian Highway due to battles between the  junta and resistance forces. The road was blocked five times between March and July 2022, with regime troops torching and destroying at least 10 freight trucks in the same period. 

Close to 1,000 vehicles and thousands of travellers were stranded due to fighting near the town of Kawkareik on October 19 this year.

Some traders said they were still able to transport some goods along a backroad between Myawaddy and Kyondoe in Kawkareik Township, but added that this was inadequate for their purposes. 

“We have to take the road through the woods using small vehicles because all the freight trucks are stuck on the Asian Highway due to the battles. It’s going to get worse for us if this continues. The perishable goods and vegetables have gone back already,” said a trucker who transports goods in the area around Myawaddy and Mae Sot.

Fighting resumed in Kawkareik Township on Tuesday morning. The military launched three airstrikes targeting the KNLA and allied forces, as well as an arson attack in Kaw Nwet village in the south of the township, according to local sources.

“They raided the village and torched four houses. The battles continued until last night,” a Kaw Nwet resident told Myanmar Now.

Kyaw Hein, spokesperson for Squadron 1 of the anti-junta Kyar Phyu (“White Tiger”) Column, said the military started using aircraft because resistance forces had succeeded in surrounding and ambushing them on the ground.

“The battle during the afternoon was especially fierce. Those military dogs torched and destroyed Kaw Nwet because they had faced several losses. They couldn’t even retrieve their dead bodies,” he said.

He added that a member of KNLA’s Battalion 27 was killed and five others were wounded during the battle.

The battles had come to a halt by Tuesday evening, but the military continued to fire heavy artillery at villages in the area, according to the White Tiger Column. The shelling destroyed civilian houses, farms, and monasteries in some 15 villages, killing a monk and three Kaw Nwet residents and injuring 10 other locals, including four monks. 

Although the Myanmar-Thailand border is dotted with border towns across several regions and states, the Mae Sot-Myawaddy Road is the border trade route closest to Yangon—Myanmar’s largest city—and is where 70% of all cross-border trade occurs.

Traders said that battles near the Asian Highway had clearly affected business, and that the number of freight trucks crossing the Myanmar-Thailand border had shrunk to a fraction of the number that used to cross before the coup.

In general, Myanmar’s economy has suffered severely since the February 2021 coup, with GDP falling 18% by September of that year. The economy has been slow to rebound amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, divestment by foreign businesses, expanding conflict, and efforts by the coup regime to maintain a trade surplus by restricting imports.

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