Early yesterday morning, Thailand’s Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) cut the power supply to two small regions of southeastern Myanmar at the request of the country’s military junta.
The contract to deliver electricity across the border to Lay Kay Kaw and Shwe Kokko in Myawaddy township, Karen State, expired yesterday, and as The Nation reported on Monday, PEA informed Somchai Kitchareanrungroj, the governor of Thailand’s Tak province, that it had been asked by Myanmar’s military not to renew the contract.
The primary culprit here is Shwe Kokko, a notorious hub of gambling, online scam operations, and other criminal activity that lies just over the border from Mae Sot. Financed by Chinese criminal syndicates and controlled by the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), Shwe Kokko initially focused on casinos and online gambling. But like other Chinese criminal groups operating in the interstices of state jurisdictions in mainland Southeast Asia, it has since diversified into telecom scams that have lured hundreds of workers, many of them from China, with promises of high-paying jobs only to effectively enslave them upon arrival.
While the military administration has no principled opposition to illegal activities of this sort – indeed, it has been directly and indirectly in the drug economy of the region for decades – Shwe Kokko and similar operations have prompted growing concerns from one of its few foreign partners: China. On May 31, China’s ambassador Chen Hai met with the junta’s Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Soe Htut and urged him to step up efforts to combat crime, online fraud, and gambling in the Thailand-Myanmar border region. This followed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s visit to Myanmar last month, during which he pushed the junta to crack down on cross-border crimes. According to The Irrawaddy, Qin said that China “attaches great importance to and is determined to crack down on” these activities.
The other region affected by the power cut was Lay Kay Kaw, a town in Karen State around 30 minutes drive from the Myawaddy-Mae Sot border. The contrast between this and Shwe Kokko could hardly be different. Law Kay Kaw was developed with the support of Japan’s Nippon Foundation in 2015 to house refugees relocated from the series of camps dotted along the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Since the military coup of 2021, Lay Kay Kaw, which is under the de facto control of the anti-junta Karen National Union (KNU), has become a popular destination for striking civil servants and pro-democracy activists who have fled crackdowns and roundups in other parts of Myanmar. The Myanmar military launched a major raid on the town in December 2021, which led to the arrest of more than 30 people associated with the anti-coup resistance.
Even though the town is no longer quite such an anti-regime stronghold, the Myanmar military’s request for the PEA decision to also cut the power to it seems nonetheless like an opportunistic attempt to hamper the KNU and other opponents of military rule.
The PEA’s announcement that it would cut power to Shwe Kokko prompted threats of retaliation from the Karen BGF, which is aligned with Myanmar’s military, but in practice operates autonomously of Naypyidaw. According to a report by BenarNews, which quoted an anonymous source with knowledge of the issue, Col. Saw Chit Thu, the leader of the Karen BGF, informally told Thai authorities that if the electricity supply to Myanmar were terminated, his group would close the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing in retaliation.
The Karen BGF has prepared backup electricity to replace the Thai supply, The Nation quoted a regional military officer as saying. The officer said provincial authorities and security officials are preparing to deal with an influx of Myanmar people and foreign workers after supplies are cut. So far there has been no apparent closure of the bridge linking the two countries, according to BenarNews.
But the Karen BGF’s threats demonstrate both the extent to which Myanmar’s borders lie beyond the effective control of the regime in Naypyidaw and the sway that non-state actors, including criminal organizations, have in many regions of the country.
While this is hardly a new problem – Shwe Kokko was established prior to the military coup, and large swathes of the country have been effectively autonomous for years – it demonstrates also that the return to direct military rule has accelerated this centrifugal tendency. The longer the country’s chaos drags on, the greater the level of disintegration.