Myanmar airstrikes cause thousands to flee across Thailand border
By Jacob Goldberg in
Bangkok, a Guardian reporter in Yangon, and agencies
3,000 estimated to have crossed over after junta attacks areas mostly populated
by Karen people
military has driven thousands of people across
the country’s border with Thailand,
adding a new dimension to an already volatile and deadly crisis.
The strikes in areas populated predominantly
by ethnic Karen people began on Saturday. Since then an estimated 3,000
villagers have fled across the Salween River into Thailand and an unknown
number have become internally displaced in the jungles on the Myanmar side of the river.
“There were big explosions, and many houses
and buildings burned down,” said Naw Wah Khu Shee, the director of Karen Peace
Support Network. She said at least three people were killed in Saturday’s
strikes, including one girl aged seven or eight, and eight were badly injured.
The government has battled Karen fighters on
and off for years as it has with other minority ethnic groups seeking more
autonomy, but the airstrikes are a worrying development at a time when the
junta is violently suppressing anti-coup protests. More
than 100 people, including several children, were killed in cities across
the country at the weekend.
Leaders of the resistance to last month’s
military coup that toppled Myanmar‘s elected government are calling for the
Karen and other ethnic groups to band together and join them as allies in a
“federal army”, which would add an armed element to their struggle.
“The situation is evolving into an all-out
civil war,” said one Mandalay-based protester, who requested anonymity for fear
of reprisals by the military.
“I see comrades with vests, gas masks, helmets
and protective eyeglasses, armed with makeshift weapons. Their equipment
provides no protection against live ammunition, and their slingshots and swords
deal next to no damage against the fascists, and yet they keep on fighting,”
the protester said.
Ethnic armed groups have voiced reciprocal
support for the protesters, with one commander of the Karen National Liberation
Army (KNLA) telling the news agency Myanmar Now: “Their bullying and killing of
unarmed civilians across Myanmar is against our revolutionary force’s beliefs.
We cannot accept inhumane acts, not only in [Karen state], but also in other
The airstrikes began several hours after a
KNLA brigade seized a military base, killing 10 soldiers and taking at least
eight captive, according to an online site that carries official information
from the Karen National Union. The report said one Karen guerrilla died.
The air attacks represent the most significant
escalation in the conflict between the army and the KNLA in more than a decade.
The army had not deployed airstrikes against the KNLA since 1995, when the
previous junta overran the headquarters of the Karen National Union, the movement’s
political arm, in the now-abandoned village of Manerplaw.
About 2,000 refugees fleeing Thailand had been
pushed back, two activist groups said on Monday, but Thai authorities said the
army was taking care of them on the border.
Video showed villagers carrying their
belongings boarding boats under the watch of Thai officials. Authorities
blocked Reuters reporters from accessing the area.
“There’s still fighter jets over the area,”
Mark Farmaner, the head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters. “Thailand’s heartless
and illegal act must stop now,” tweeted
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.
Thichai Jindaluang, the governor of Thailand’s
Mae Hong Son province, said the refugees were not being pushed back. State
media reported they were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae
Sariang and Sop Moei districts.
A Thai provincial official from Mae Hong Son
who declined to be named said the group was “in Thai territory by the Salween
River but they haven’t come further. It’s under army management.”
Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha,
said earlier on Monday his government was preparing for an influx of displaced
people from Myanmar. “We don’t want to have an exodus into our territory, but
we will observe human rights, too.”
On Saturday, more than 100 people were killed
in and around demonstrations throughout the country on the bloodiest
single day since the coup.
As the death toll rises, incidents of
indiscriminate shootings are emerging. In central Myanmar, a 14-year-old girl
was shot dead in her home, according to her father, as security forces sprayed
a neighbourhood with bullets.
A graphic video from the ruby mining town of
Mogok shows a boy who had been shot in the face. “Don’t touch it, raise your
head. Help him lie down,” says an onlooker as others curse at the police.
On Sunday the violence continued as security
forces fired automatic weapons in Yangon’s South Dagon Township, where a
two-year-old who was indoors was hit in the ear by a bullet, according to the
local news outlet Khit Thit Media. As security forces blocked the area, medics
struggled to provide aid. Mon 29 Mar 2021
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The killings on the country’s annual Armed
Forces Day drew renewed criticism from western countries, with the US envoy
describing the violence as “horrifying”. A count issued by an independent
researcher in Yangon who has been compiling near-real time death tolls put the
total at 107, spread over more than two dozen cities and towns: