Chiangrai Times – Few foreigners have never heard of Na Kham Mwe—a rebel commander also known as “Mr Moustache”. Na Kham Mwe is counted among Thailand’s 25 Most Wanted. Among them, he ranks as the fifth-most-wanted of the alleged drug barons. His rise to infamy is largely due to renewed interest on the part of Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Chalerm Yubamrung, the man charged with fighting his country’s perennial variation on “the war on drugs”.
In his political role, Na Kham Mwe and his followers split from the mainstay of the ethnic Karens’ anti-government movement, the Karen National Union (KNU), which is dominated by Christian Karens, in the mid-1990s. They named their splinter group the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
Na Kham Mwe’s meteoric rise to notoriety has led to the offer of a 1,000,000-baht reward ($33,000) to anyone who can assist in his capture. There has been a warrant out for his arrest since 2003. But until very recently the Thai authorities had shown little interest in capturing him. (When he was apprehended in 2010, in Chiang Mai, he was quickly released.)
Since his newfound fame and hugely escalated criminal status, Mr Moustache himself has undergone something of a makeover. When this correspondent last met him, in 2010, Na Kham Mwe wore an old vest and was escorted by a modest handful of heavily armed comrades. Now he conducts press conferences dressed in neat military uniform, with a beret to complement his neatly groomed moustache, and leaves the room surrounded by a guard of honour.
Na Kham Mwe has responded to his accusers by inviting both Mr Chalerm, a former police chief, and America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to come and inspect his sovereign patch, a sliver of Myanmar’s impoverished Karen state, which shares its eastern border with Thailand. The gesture is regarded as meaningless by the Thais: Na Kham Mwe is suspected of trafficking drugs, not producing them. No inspection of his territory is likely to reveal criminal evidence that could be used against him.
He protests his innocence and claims that he has not yet been shown any formal charges. Innocent or not, Na Kham Kwe has retaliated against his accusers. His men have blocked checkpoints on roads leading into Thailand. He threatens to take further measures—and vows never to surrender, for good measure.
At a press event on May 10th he mocked Mr Chalerm—the two have taken up a fierce war of words—by calling on him to pursue Thailand’s wanted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawtra, the brother of the country’s sitting prime minister. “Or does Thai law have no meaning?” he taunted.
While Na Kham Mwe’s relations with Thailand’s government have been souring, his relations with Myanmar and its army are more cordial than at any time since 2010. Back then he scuttled a cease-fire with them in 2010, taking issue with the Border Guard Force agreement, a cornerstone to Myanmar’s scheme to assimilate the “ethnic” armed groups into the national army.
At his recent press conference in the dusty Karen hamlet of Wale (pronounced “wall-ay”), the red, green and gold of Myanmar’s national flag fluttered next to DBKA and Buddhist banners. Na Kham Mwe’s second secretary, Lone Lone, explained the presence of the Myanmar flag as being a matter of “diplomacy”, as if between states. Cease-fire talks have been back on the table since February.
The DKBA are known to have ties with Myanmar’s largest ethnic army, thought to number around 20,000 armed men: the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA are major producers of methamphetamine and also long-time signatories of the a cease-fire with the government. They set up an office in Myawaddy as soon as the DKBA were formed in 1994.
Neither Thailand’s nor Myanmar’s government has made much effort to reign in the UWSA. Ko Ko Hlaing, the chief political adviser to Myanmar’s president and himself a former military man, is unequivocal about it. He says their ceasefire is reason enough for the army to spare the UWSA from harassment.
Recently the area around Myawaddy has been flooded with methamphetamine pills, one of Myanmar’s most robust export products, known locally as yaba. Most of East Asia is seeing a surge in yaba production, much of it thought to be manufactured in Myanmar. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the number of pills seized annually by law-enforcement agencies across the region rose from some 32m pills in 2008 to 133m in 2010.
A friend of Na Kham Mwe’s says that his relations with the Thai military establishment are likewise doing fine. This friend, a former officer in Thailand’s army, now holds a mining concession in Na Kham Mwe’s territory. He says that relations are so cordial that Thai officers were willing to negotiate Na Kham Mwe’s release three years ago. (In the same account, this friend is the one who drove the moustachioed outlaw from Thailand back to his fief on the Myanmar border.)
Na Kham Mwe’s new enemy, Mr Chalerm, is himself no stranger to controversy. He has strong associations with Thailand’s national police force: traditional rivals for power with the army. An analyst in Thailand, who wished to remain anonymous, says putting Mr Chalerm in charge of drugs policy is like “putting a vampire in charge of a blood bank”.
The former police chief is widely suspected of having underworld connections. The former police chief is widely suspected of having underworld connections. He is alleged to have helped his son go underground while he was wanted for the murder of a police officer at a nightclub in 2001.
Thus the latest, most hopeful stage in Myanmar’s national story is shifting the ground beneath some of the country’s seemingly intractable ethnic problems. While armed violence is at an ebb tide along the Karen border, a once-minor warlord is reconstructing himself as an effective demagogue. At the same time he is establishing himself as a player in an unsavoury corner of Thailand’s political life.