The junta’s forces have taken control of a key neighbourhood along a strategically important road in Karenni State that leads to Naypyitaw, forcing resistance fighters to retreat under a barrage of missiles, airstrikes and artillery fire.
The Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KDNF) withdrew from Daw Ngan Khar, which is just minutes from the centre of the town of Demoso, after coming under attack on Saturday.
A road linking Demoso to Moebye, a town just north of the border with Shan State, runs through Daw Ngan Khar and then connects to a route that leads to Myanmar’s capital.
Some 200 soldiers were involved in the assault, according to a spokesperson for the KNDF’s Battalion 1.
“They fired missiles. There was no way we could defend against a series of missiles. They also fired 60mm, 80mm, 120mm and 122mm artillery shells relentlessly,” he told Myanmar Now. “We didn’t want to give up control over the area but we had to as we didn’t want to lose any more lives.”
The KNDF still had control of other parts of Demoso Township and would retake Daw Ngan Khar, he said: “We want Daw Ngan Khar back and we will take it back. Please give us your support.”
He added: “It wouldn’t solve every problem but it would be a lot better for the IDPs and for the resistance forces if we could regain control over the area between Daw Ngan Khar and Moebye. At least the IDPs would have somewhere to flee to. They no longer have anywhere to run now.”
During the assault on Daw Ngan Khar, junta soldiers from Infantry Battalions 102, 261, and 427 fired heavy artillery. In recent days and nights scouting helicopters have been hovering over Demoso Township and the junta’s air force has dropped bombs on camps where displaced people have been sheltering, the KNDF spokesperson said.
He had also heard reports that junta forces bombed villages along the Demoso-Moebye road, killed civilians and burned down houses, though he was unable to gather further details because of the communications blackout.
Fighting escalated in the area a month ago after junta soldiers entered and occupied Moebye. Since then over 100 junta personnel and 40 resistance fighters have been killed, according to statements by the KNDF.
Nineteen civilians have also been killed, including four who died when junta aircraft dropped bombs on camps for people who had fled their homes, according to the statements.
Since fighting erupted in the wake of last year’s military coup, more than 170,000 people have fled their homes in Karenni region, which covers Karenni State and Pekhon Township in southern Shan State.
Many have had to flee several times amid repeated attacks on displacement camps by the junta’s forces, several volunteer aid workers have said.
In early January, anti-junta forces said they had taken control of Loikaw Township, where Karenni’s capital is based. The junta responded by launching numerous assaults aimed at reclaiming the territory, while cutting off phone and internet access to the area.
Resistance forces in Karenni, like those elsewhere in the country, say they do not have enough weapons and ammunition, and have called on the National Unity Government (NUG) to supply them.
Saturday’s defeat in Daw Ngan Khar happened because the resistance was outgunned by the junta, said a KNDF fighter who was involved in the clash.
The group’s fighters had to take turns using weapons during the clash because they didn’t have enough for everyone to be armed at the same time, he said.
“We didn’t think they’d use that much force. It was just too cruel,” he added. “We eventually had to retreat solely because we didn’t have as many weapons as them. But we are going to continue fighting because we just can’t stand injustice.”
Since declaring a war of resistance against the junta in September, the NUG has repeatedly said it is working to establish a chain of command to unify the numerous anti-junta armed groups across Myanmar.
But it remains unclear to what extent the underground administration is arming and training resistance forces.
Naing Htoo Aung, the secretary of the NUG’s defence ministry, told Myanmar Now that supporting the nationwide armed resistance was a “priority”.
“We are trying to provide more funds and weapons,” he said last week. “This is a priority as well as a challenge for the defence department of the NUG.”
The KNDF says it is working under the command of the Karenni Army (KA), a rebel group that has operated in the region for decades, rather than under the NUG.
The KNDF has 18 battalions and is formed of groups of locals who took up arms last year to resist the new junta.
Other resistance groups in the region–including those from Moebye, Pekhon, Demoso, Loikaw and Hpruso townships–say they have formed official ties with the NUG.
There are various other self-organising guerrilla groups active in the region, but it is unclear if they are still operating independently or under the command of a larger group.
Aung San Myint, the deputy secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party, the political wing of the KA, said every resistance group must come under a single chain of command in order to defeat the junta.
“We need to have a step-by-step military plan,” he said. “The plan is very chaotic right now because the resistance groups are not under a single chain of command. That is the reason why we’ve lost so many people.”
Karenni State, also known as Kayah, has a population of around 300,000 people. Well over half that number have been displaced by fighting since the coup, according to local civil society groups.
Junta officials could not be reached for comment on the latest clashes.