Myanmar Fighting, Political Strife Swell Refugee Ranks, Affect Neighboring States

Special to BenarNews
Myanmar Fighting, Political Strife Swell Refugee Ranks, Affect Neighboring States Ethnic Karen protesters flash a three-finger salute of defiance and display signs calling for the abolishment of the military dictatorship during a demonstration in Dooplaya district, southeastern Myanmar’s Karen state, April 22, 2021.
AFP/KNU Dooplaya district

More than 30,000 Myanmar civilians have fled their villages in the eastern state of Karen and are hiding in nearby jungles following air strikes in populated areas in response to the seizure of a government military post by a rebel ethnic army, an official from an NGO said Friday.

Fighting that flared up in March in Karen has driven thousands of ethnic Karen into Thailand, while others cluster near the border. To Myanmar’s west, Bangladesh has beefed up border patrols to stop an influx of Rohingya trying to join fellow members of their ethnic minority in refugee settlements.

Myanmar’s northernmost state of Kachin has also seen a longstanding conflict between ethnic armies and the national military intensify since army generals overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, igniting nationwide protests that were met with fierce violence that has killed 750 people.

The Karen National Liberation Army overran the Myanmar army’s Thaw Le Hta military post on the Thai-Burmese border on Tuesday, prompting aerial attacks which sent villagers running to the jungle, said Saw Thu Bi, a spokesman for the Karen Peace Support Network.

Myanmar military attacks on populated areas of Karen state in late March also drove many civilians to flee their homes and seek refuge near the Thai border or into Thailand.

“Some of them have fled to Thailand since March 27, and they were driven back by Thailand,” he said. “This time when the military plane attacked their villages, they did not want to run to the Thai side again.”

The Thai government has allowed the relief organization to transport food to the refugees, though it proved difficult because some villagers had fled into the mountains, he said.

On Wednesday, military jets attacked villages along Salween (Thanlwin) River four times, though it is not known if there were any casualties.

That air strike caused more than 300 civilians to flee to Thailand, said K'nyaw Paw, general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).

The ethnic Karen refugees have been taking shelter in the mountains for almost three months now, said Say Say from the KWO’s central standing committee.

“There has been heavy artillery fire [and] the internally displaced persons are afraid and living in fear,” she said. “They have had so much anxiety since the beginning, and their main concern is safety for their lives. They are now more frightened because of the attack.”

There are now more than 30,000 Karen refugees in the area, and it is the most worrying situation in more than 70 years of fighting, she said.

“The monsoons will be coming very soon, [and] they are living in cramped quarters and without clean water,” Say Say said. “They will suffer from diarrhea and other illnesses, such as the flu, which are very common.”

Fires burn at a Myanmar military base along the bank of the Salween River following an attack by an ethnic Karen rebel army in southeastern Myanmar's Karen state, April 27, 2021. [AFP/Kawthoolei Today]

Crossing into Thailand

Thailand’s foreign ministry said Friday that more than 2,200 people from Karen state had crossed the border into Mae Hong Son province this week as they fled fighting between rebels and Myanmar government forces.

“Currently, there are still people fleeing unrest from Myanmar to the Thai side for asylum in the area of Mae Sariang district,” Tanee Sangrat, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters.

The Thai government has ordered relevant agencies to be prepared by allowing people fleeing unrest from Myanmar to stay in a temporary safe area under the supervision of the military. There they will be screened for the coronavirus, he said.

“If there is protracted violence, the Thai armed forces and provincial service have prepared a plan to move the refugees to another shelter to wait,” the spokesman said. “It is about one kilometer from the border, where humanitarian aid will be provided, such as food, water, and medicine.”

The Thai government has prohibited the delivery of relief supplies by humanitarian organizations because of COVID-19 regulations, he said.

Matcha Phorn-in, director of the Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project, an NGO, told BenarNews that there was a lack of cooperation between CSOs, NGOs, the U.N., and the Thai government in dealing with refugee problems. Most of the war refugees are children, women and the elderly, Matcha said.

“Our demand is to ask the government to open up workspaces with NGOs, U.N. agencies, humanitarian workers, to provide immediate assistance to refugees without pushing [Myanmar refugees] back,” said Matcha, who also urged states to support humanitarian aid for refugees, and grant journalists access to the region.

Col. Sujin Sapsin, the commander of the 7th Infantry Regiment, told the media that the Thai military is still unable to assess the violence in Myanmar.

“The refugees are not allowed to enter the regular community area. It is more important to keep the people safe as we are fighting the COVID-19,” Col. Sujin said, explaining why some areas along the border in Mae Hong Son province had been closed off to outsiders.

Rohingyas head to Bangladesh

To Myanmar’s west, Bangladesh has intensified patrols along its border with Myanmar to prevent illegal cross-border entries by Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine state, Bangladeshi officials said Friday.

Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) stopped 133 Myanmar nationals from entering, 104 of whom were pushed back into Myanmar in March and April alone, they said.

Between January and April, another 31 Rohingya had crossed the border but were handed over to the U.N. refugee agency after authorities found them hiding in a local refugee camp, officials said.

“In recent times, there has been an increase in attempts by Myanmar nationals to infiltrate into Bangladesh, so we have intensified patrols along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to prevent illegal entry,” said BGB’s operations director Lt. Col. Faizur Rahman, referring to the Rohingya.

A crackdown on Myanmar’s Rohingya led by the Myanmar military in 2017 drove about 745,000 members of the minority group into Bangladesh, where they now live in sprawling displacement camps. The influx of refugees strained already-scarce resources in Bangladesh, itself a developing nation.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still live in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“Bangladesh has done more than what it can do for the Rohingyas. Now other neighboring countries should also stand beside them,” said Mohammad Delwar Hossain, director general of the Myanmar wing at Bangladesh’s foreign ministry.

Some of those seeking to join their families in Bangladesh include prisoners recently released by the Myanmar government during an amnesty marking the Buddhist New Year. Authorities freed more than 23,000 prisoners, including 137 foreigners under the general amnesty.

“There are many freed prisoners whose families have already taken refuge in Bangladesh. That’s why they want to come here,” said Mostafa Kamal, a Rohingya leader in the new refugee camp at Leda in Teknaf sub-district of southeastern Bangladesh.

Mohammad Tariqul Islam, commander of the Armed Police Battalion No. 16, said that 31 Rohingya who were hiding out in Cox’s Bazar district, where the refugee camps are located, were sent this year to a transit camp run by the U.N.’s refugee agency in Ukhia sub-district.

Myanmar citizens hold a candlelight demonstration against the military junta in Hpakant township, northern Myanmar's Kachin state, April 29, 2021. [AFP/Kachin Waves]

More IDPs in Kachin state

In Kachin state, on Myanmar’s northern border with China, fighting between the government military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an insurgent group, has intensified since the Feb. 1 coup, displacing about 10,000 people, local residents said.

Ten civilians, a monk, and at least 20 cattle were killed in clashes that began in Momauk township on April 10, they said. At least 30 houses were burned to the ground, forcing villagers to flee to refugee camps and religious schools in neighboring townships, they said.

“The current situation is very intense,” said one resident. “There was shooting all day and all night. A military plane came again and again to attack villages below. People in villages like Sihak and Kone Law and further north cannot live there any longer. Tens of thousands of people are now displaced.”

A villager was killed and a woman was seriously wounded when a mortar shell fell on his community on Thursday, residents said.

Fighting has intensified and displaced villagers are having great difficulty finding food, said a local villager from Sihak.

“When our cows stepped on the mines they laid, the cows died,” he said. “We are in a lot of trouble now. The local crops are coming out soon, but we can no longer go to the fields. We have to abandon our crops.”

Most of the people affected by the fighting, the latest flare-up in a conflict that has been going on since 2012, between Myanmar forces and the KIA township are Shan, the country’s second-largest ethnic group.

Kachin military analysts say there have been more than 40 clashes in over 70 days, with air strikes on at least 20 occasions.

“This time, we are seeing a fight which is a mixture of both military and a revolution, and it will be a fierce and lengthy fight without either side giving up,” said Wasaung Sayadaw, a Buddhist abbot who is helping the displaced villagers.

“It will be like a revolutionary war instead of the ordinary war because the country as well as the people will suffer for a long time.”

KIA spokesman Colonel Naw Bu said the rebel force stands in solidarity with the people to overthrow the military dictatorship.

“We will only be able to overthrow the dictatorship if everyone participates in any way they can,” he said. “The people must be involved in winning this war.”

Radio Free Asias, a sister entity of BenarNews, could not reach deputy information minister and junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, for comment

More than 120,000 displaced people in Kachin already were living in over 40 refugee camps before the military coup on Feb 1.

Two motorcyclists killed

Protests against the Myanmar junta and in support of the parallel government continued on Friday in many townships of Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing regions and in Shan state.

Hundreds of young people marched in Yangon, despite heavy rain.

According to RFA, more than 700 people have been killed by the military and police across the country. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a monitoring group based in Thailand, recorded 759 deaths since Feb. 1 and 4,537 arrests, with 3,485 still detained.

In Mon state, two motorcyclists were killed on the spot when police and soldiers in a car chased and rammed into them Thursday evening, said Lin Tin Htay, a lawmaker in the state’s assembly, on his Facebook page.

In Mandalay’s Chanayethazan township, a bomb exploded at a building near the district court Friday morning, prompting a rapid response by security forces, though there were no casualties, a witness said.

Bomb blasts are becoming a daily occurrence in Mandalay with similar attacks earlier this week outside the residences of local officials and offices.

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Sharif Khiam and Abdur Rahman, in Dhaka and Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.


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