Hundreds of Thai villagers who live along Thailand’s border with Myanmar were evacuated to safe areas after Karen rebels attacked a Burmese army outpost near the frontier on Tuesday, the governor of Mae Hong Song province said.
The borderland residents were moved to an area farther inside Thai territory where they could shelter, amid reports of fresh fighting between the Myanmar government forces and Karen rebels, who claimed they seized a military base early Tuesday.
“About 450 villagers in Mae Sam Lab were evacuated to safe areas in Mae Kong Kard village,” Gov. Sithichai Chindaluang told reporters.
A stray bullet from the other side of the border wounded a female evacuee in the knee, the governor said about Tuesday’s fighting nearby in Myanmar’s Karen state.
Meanwhile in Bangkok, the Thai foreign ministry said that if any displaced ethnic Karen were to flee into Thailand, the country would give them sanctuary and humanitarian aid.
The flare-up in fighting along the border came three days after a consensus reached among leaders at a special meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called on all parties in Myanmar to cease violence immediately.
About 250 families, or 1,200 people, were still to be evacuated from the borderland because they lacked the means to leave on their own, Matcha Phorn-in, a human rights activist who monitors the situation along the frontier, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Some residents who stayed behind in Mae Sam Lab village said they were terrified.
“I heard distant sounds of gunfire since early in the morning and all of us were fearful,” a woman in Mae Sam Lab who asked to be identified as Rawee, for privacy reasons, told BenarNews.
“Some were evacuated to other areas because they feared more escalated fighting such as air strikes.”
‘Fight military to military’
At about 5 a.m. Tuesday, troops from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) rebel group attacked a Myanmar army outpost opposite Thailand’s Mae Sam Lab village, and then pursued fleeing Burmese troops, said Sithichai, Mae Hong Song’s governor.
KNU, an armed ethnic insurgent movement, has been fighting for federalism in Myanmar for decades. KLNA is the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) that holds large swathes of territory in the borderlands with Thailand.
The rebels raided and took over the Burmese military’s Thaw Lae Hta base on the Thai-Burmese border, the KNU and local residents told RFA.
“KNU/KNLA attacked and seized the military terrorists’ Thaw Lae Hta camp at around 4:30 a.m. early morning on April 27, 2021,” the Karen National Union’s information unit said in a statement.
“Likewise, (the KNU) forces will attack and seize the military camps which are disturbing the people’s livelihoods and threatening their life in the future.”
The KLNA attacked the military camp in response to Burmese soldiers from the Thaw Lae Hta base allegedly shooting last week at civilian boats on the Salween River, including boats carrying Thai border security forces, spokesman Col. Saw Kler Doh told KarenNews.
“Fight military to military. We can’t accept when they go after unarmed civilians. We will do what we can to stop them from harming civilians,” Saw Kler Doh said.
“The camps have been set on fire,” a Thai villager said.
“As I was speaking, I saw seven Burmese soldiers fleeing from the shore. They were still holding their guns,” the eyewitness told the Karen Information Center (KIC), a local news group.
Local outlets reported casualties from the early morning attack but RFA could not confirm the number.
Hours after the rebels attack, the Myanmar military retaliated with at least one air strike on villages in rebel-held territory, observers said.
“In midday, a jet fighter came to the area and dropped two bombs in the Dah Gwe area but it was raining so we could not see clearly. We still have not heard of any casualties from the air raids yet,” Saw Thu Bee, with the Karen Peace Support Network, told RFA.
The rebels attacked the army base because government forces “had been disturbing, threatening and shooting” at local residents who supported Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement in the wake of the Feb. 1 military coup, Saw Thu Bee said.
“Burma’s air force conducted air strikes against two areas in Bu Tho township, Hpapun District in Northern Karen State today. We don’t know the casualties yet,” David Eubank, of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a Thai-based group that monitors activity on the border with Myanmar, told RFA.
“And we do know they may bombing … the village area of Bu Tho township as well as the Dah Gwe area. These are both areas with villagers, farmers and IDPs there. And we are waiting for the news of the casualties,” he said.
Myanmar ‘junta moves to walk back’ ASEAN agreement
The fighting in Karen state occurred days after a summit of ASEAN leaders to discuss the turmoil in that country, which is one of the bloc’s 10 members.
Since the coup on Feb. 1, military and security forces in Myanmar have killed 755 mostly pro-democracy protesters, according to a Thai-based NGO, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The ASEAN meeting in Jakarta on Saturday came out with a “Five-Point Consensus” on Myanmar. Among other things, it called for an immediate cessation of violence, with all parties exercising “utmost restraint”; a constructive dialogue among all parties; and the mediation of such talks by a special ASEAN envoy.
Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing attended the special in-person meeting. But in a statement published late on Monday, Myanmar’s military regime indicated that it would consider ASEAN’s five points when there was stability in the country.
“[M]yanmar informed the ASEAN meeting that it would give careful consideration to constructive suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability in the country since priorities at the moment were to maintain law and order and to restore community peace and tranquility,” the State Administration Council – the official name for the junta – said in a statement that was tweeted by many political observers.
“The suggestions would be positively considered if it … serves the interests of the country and was based on purposes and principles enshrined in the ASEAN charter.”
Political analysts said this indicated that the junta was going back on its word to ASEAN.
“ASEAN cannot dither here, as the junta moves to walk back even the limited agreement reached Saturday,” Scot Marciel, the former American ambassador to Myanmar, tweeted on Tuesday.
“There should be urgent follow up, and costs imposed on the junta for [the] delay. There is a reason no one in Myanmar trusts the Tatmadaw,” Marciel said, referring to the Burmese name of Myanmar’s armed forces.
‘Thailand will provide sanctuary’
The Myanmar military’s crackdown on anti-coup protests has displaced almost 250,000 people, a United Nations human rights envoy said last week.
Also last month, Burmese military jets bombed villages controlled by KNU, following which 20,000 Karen people went into hiding in the jungles and thousands crossed into Thailand, Karen sources and Thai NGOs had said.
If Karen were to flee again, Thailand would take them in, Tanee Sangrat, the Thai foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
“Should there be displaced persons from Myanmar crossing into Thai soil, involved agencies will follow the planned procedure by harboring them at a temporary safe sanctuary under the military supervision and with COVID screening measures,” Tanee said.
“If the fighting escalates, we have a plan to move them to another place, one kilometer away from the borderline and provide humanitarian assistances [like] food, water and medicine, with the support of government agencies and private sectors.”
Source: Radio Free Asia