Myanmar’s coup has brought war back to a remote Southeast Asian frontier after 25 years, sending a new generation of villagers in both Myanmar and Thailand running for their lives from bullets and bombs.
Ethnic Karen insurgents and the Myanmar army have engaged in heavy clashes near the Thai border in the weeks since the Feb. 1 coup, when Myanmar’s generals ousted an elected government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Karen and other autonomy-seeking ethnic minority forces based in frontier regions have supported the largely urban-based pro-democracy opponents of the junta, offering refuge to some, and tension with the military has boiled up into new fighting.
Before dawn on April 27, Karen fighters attacked the Myanmar army’s Thaw Leh Ta outpost on the west bank of the Salween River, which forms the border with Thailand as it cuts through steep, forested slopes on its way to the Bay of Bengal.
“I’ve never heard gunfire like this, I’ve never seen people needing to flee like this,” said Supart Nunongpan, 44, chief of the Thai village of Mae Sam Laep, a small river port of wooden houses and shops strung out along the Thai side of the Salween.
The Myanmar army had held Thaw Leh Ta since 1995, the last time there was major fighting in the area when, after years of dry-season offensives, the Myanmar army captured the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU) guerrilla group, not far to the south.
Divided and driven from most of its enclaves in eastern Myanmar, the KNU agreed to a ceasefire in 2012, ending an insurgency that began soon after Myanmar gained independence in 1948.
Now war has resumed and the Myanmar military, equipped with more effective aircraft than it had 25 years ago, has launched repeated air strikes against KNU positions, sending some 15,000 villagers fleeing into the forest, with several thousand briefly seeking refuge on the Thai side of the border.
Myanmar launched air strikes on April 27 and again on April 28, with fighter jets and helicopters, Thai authorities on the border said. There was no word on casualties.
About 100 villagers from Myanmar, most of them elderly, pregnant women or children, crossed to the Thai side on April 28 to escape the air strikes, the Free Burma Rangers aid group said.
Hundreds of Thai villagers living too close to the border for comfort have also abandoned their homes and fled inland. One woman on the Thai side was wounded by a stray bullet on April 27, Thai authorities said.
Thai villagers are sheltering in a school and a church in the settlement of Huay Kong Kad, a safe distance from the border. They think the fighting is far from over and it is only a matter of time before Myanmar’s powerful military tries to take back the lost outposts.
“I don’t feel safe, it’s still dangerous. I’m afraid of the air strikes,” Amin, 40, another villager from Mae Sam Laep who goes by only one name, told Reuters.
The Myanmar junta has not commented on the latest clashes but the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper blamed a rogue KNU brigade for the attacks, saying most of the KNU still backed the 2012 ceasefire.
The head of foreign affairs for the KNU, Saw Taw Nee, rejected that as “nonsense”, saying state media was trying to “divide and conquer”.
Thailand, which played host to more than 100,000 Karen refugees for decades, has said it wants to stay out of the latest surge of fighting but will provide humanitarian help if needed.
For now, displaced Thai villagers wait. Several said they only dared slip back into Mae Sam Laep during the day to check on their homes, fearing more fighting at any time.
“I’m afraid because we live on the border. The villagers are also afraid,” village head Supart said.