A series of airstrikes by the Myanmar military has led thousands of people to cross the country’s border with Thailand, adding a new dimension to an already volatile and deadly crisis.
Strikes in areas populated predominantly by Karen people began on Saturday. Since then, some 3,000 villagers have fled across the Salween River to Thailand and an unknown number have become internally displaced in the jungles on Myanmar’s river side.
“There were big explosions and many houses and buildings burned down,” said Naw Wah Khu Shee, director of the Karen Peace Support Network. He said at least three people were killed in Saturday’s attacks, including a seven- or eight-year-old girl, and eight were seriously injured.
The government has fought off Karen fighters for years, as it has with other ethnic minority groups seeking more autonomy, but the airstrikes are a worrying development at a time when the junta is violently cracking down on anti-coup protests. More than 100 people, including several children, died in cities across the country over 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 unite 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 a Mandalay-based protester, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the military.
“I see colleagues in vests, gas masks, helmets and goggles, armed with improvised weapons. Their equipment does not provide protection against live ammunition, and their slings and swords do almost no harm against the fascists, and yet they continue to fight, ”said the protester.
Ethnic armed groups have expressed mutual support for the protesters, and a commander of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) told Myanmar Now news agency: “Your intimidation and killing of unarmed civilians across Myanmar is against the beliefs of our revolutionary force. We cannot accept inhumane acts, not only in [Karen state], but also in other areas. “
The airstrikes began several hours after a KNLA brigade seized a military base, killing 10 soldiers and taking at least eight captives, according to an online site that carries official information from the Karen National Union. The report says that a Karen guerrilla was killed.
The airstrikes 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 invaded the headquarters of the Karen National Union, the movement’s political arm, in the now-abandoned town of Manerplaw.
Some 2,000 refugees fleeing Thailand were turned away, two groups of activists said Monday, but Thai authorities said the army was guarding them at the border.
The video showed villagers loading their belongings onto the boats under the surveillance of Thai officials. Authorities prevented Reuters reporters from accessing the area.
“There are still fighter jets over the area,” Mark Farmaner, head of the UK Burma Campaign, told Reuters. “The illegal and ruthless act of Thailand must end now”, tweeted Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.
Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, said the refugees were not being turned away. State media reported that they were in a safe location on the edge 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 “on Thai territory along the Salween River, but they have gone no further. It is under the direction of the army. “
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday that his government was preparing for an influx of displaced people from Myanmar. “We do not want to have an exodus to our territory, but we will also respect human rights.”
On Saturday, more than 100 people died in and around demonstrations across the country on the bloodiest day since the coup.
As the death toll rises, incidents of indiscriminate shooting are emerging. In central Myanmar, a 14-year-old girl was shot and killed in her home, according to her father, when security forces fired at a neighborhood.
A graphic video from the ruby-mining town of Mogok shows a boy being shot in the face. “Don’t touch it, raise your head. Help him lie down, ”says one onlooker while others curse the police.
On Sunday, the violence continued when security forces fired automatic weapons in Yangon’s South Dagon Township, where a two-year-old boy inside was hit by a bullet in the ear, according to the local media outlet. Khit Thit Media. When security forces blocked the area, medics struggled to provide help.
Reuters contributed to this report
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism