Seize and rescue: Karen forces ambush junta police station and free jailed PDF fighters

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Feature Desk

In early June, a group of people met in a forest on the Thai-Myanmar border in Karen State under the cover of night. Only a torch lit the ground, held by one man as another used a stick to draw a map in the dry earth.

“We will go in three groups—I’ll be in the middle column so that everyone can see and hear my commands,” he said in video footage seen by Myanmar Now, describing a plan of attack.

At 25 years old, Saw Win Myint heads a special commando force within the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), an armed wing of the Karen National Union.

The target of the ambush was the Waw Lay police station in southern Myawaddy Township, a three-day trip on foot from the commando force’s base.

Marking sites around the station on the map in the soil, Saw Win Myint indicated locations where landmines had been laid by the occupying army.

“Avoid these places… wait a bit before you go in,” he warned. “Keep firing at the entrance for five minutes and then retreat to the trench, where you will hide,” the young commander ordered.

The mission: seize control of the police station and rescue nine members of the anti-junta People’s Defence Force (PDF) jailed there. The five men and four women, all in their early 20s, had been detained in Waw Lay since their arrest in February after having undergone combat training in KNU-controlled territory. One of the individuals was himself a former member of Myanmar’s police who had defected to the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The 50-member KNDO commando unit walked to the station through dense woods, avoiding villages in order to prevent a potential information leak that could jeopardise the operation. It was an undertaking accompanied by grave risk; awaiting them could be heavily armed junta reinforcements, and the certainty that they would then be outmanned and outgunned.

An ambush and a distraction
“We wanted to both rescue the youth and take down the police station,” Sa Lone, a leading member of the KNDO’s commando force, later told Myanmar Now.

In addition to arresting members of the resistance, troops stationed at the Waw Lay site, located on the road to the township’s administrative centre, had long been carrying out intrusive searches of civilian vehicles, detaining villagers and demanding random for their release, he explained.

Sa Lone’s role was to oversee the June 13 early morning guerrilla attack on the police station from the command centre.

“I didn’t sleep at all, because I knew I had to take control of the battle and that I had to strategise in order to do so,” he told Myanmar Now. “I told my men to take over and torch the police station and to rescue everyone that was being held captive there.”

However, Sa Lone first instructed half his men to shoot up the junta’s nearby tactical base in Waw Lay in order to prevent or slow the arrival of reinforcements at the police station, which could have ended the mission.

“They thought we wanted to attack the tactical base but it was just a distraction. We were actually targeting the police station,” he explained later.

The plan worked. Despite there being some 100 troops stationed at the base, none appeared to be aware of the parallel operation at the police station, instead firing artillery shells in an effort to protect the tactical officer located inside the post.

Under the command of Saw Win Myint, the rest of the KNDO force overran the police station before dawn, engaging in a battle that lasted just 30 minutes.

Twenty-eight police officers were stationed at the site, according to the KNDO, which reported that 20 fled and three were killed. Five were captured, their weapons and ammunition confiscated.

A weight lifted

Joe, the nickname of one of the nine PDF members detained in the station, described hearing the battle from his 15-foot cell, where he had been held with the four other men for 105 days, having been spared an initial stay in a military interrogation centre.

“The [junta] officers were scolding each other. They alerted each other that ‘the enemy’ was coming. One blamed the others for sleeping while on guard duty,” he said.

As the police station had come under attack multiple times, Joe did not believe that the KNDO had planned to liberate the prisoners until he heard a whistle indicating that the site had been taken over.

Moments later, Joe recalled Saw Win Myint unlocking the door to his cell and that of his wife, who had been detained with the other women on the other side of the wall.

“Despite being put in cells next to each other, I hadn’t seen my wife for a long time. I felt so happy and relieved when I finally got to embrace her. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my chest,” he said.

The imprisonment was marked with many hardships, he explained, from nocturnal stings by the centipedes present under the floorboards to being fed rice and dried fish infested with worms, maggots, and even laced with bits of metal.

“Wire pieces from the scrubs used to wash the pots were all over the food. We were fed only enough to survive. It was a lucky day when we got a potato,” Joe said.

Their only connection to the world outside was the distant sound of prayers being projected from a monastery loudspeaker in the distance.

“I still can’t believe that this actually happened,” he said of his rescue, adding, “I knew, without fail, that our brothers and mentors would save us.”

Forces under the KNU have overran at least five Myanmar military bases since the coup, including at Thee Mu Hta and Thaw Le Hta on the Salween River last year, and at Kyauk Nyat, Maw Khee and Thay Baw Boe in Waw Lay this year.

However, the June 13 operation marked the first known rescue of detained PDF members from within a junta jail by the resistance during the same period.

Upon exiting his cell, Joe remembered seeing the captured officers and the junta’s flag removed from the pole laying on the ground. One of the rescuing KNDO members gave him a gun and he fired two shots into the air in celebration of his release.

Days later, Joe told Myanmar Now that he planned to continue to participate in the anti-coup armed resistance movement as he could not stand by and watch the military attempt to take control of the country.

“I will continue to fight,” he said

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