Since the coup on February 1st 2021, more than 600 people have died in Myanmar while standing up against the military dictatorship. The junta has imposed strict control over local media outlets.
The current situation there bears much semblance to what happened in Gwangju in May 1980. In their democratic struggle, protesters are putting their lives at risk. What does the future hold for them? To deepen our readers’ understanding, the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa will be publishing special reports written by local journalists- Saw Yan Naing and his colleagues. Saw Yan Naing is a veteran reporter who has written for The Irrawaddy, BBC Burmese, Global Investigative Journalism Network, and more. - Editor’s Note
Burmese military is dealing with civil war with ethnic armed groups in borderland. Air strikes and daily fighting and clashes are reported in ethnic Karen, Kachin and Shan States- southeastern, northeastern, and eastern Myanmar.
In Karen State alone, the escalating fighting has forced more than 20,000 to become Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs) fleeing home for safety. Also more than 2,000 refugees fled into Thai soil where they were pushed back. Experts said the international community must take immediate action to stop the violence in Myanmar.
▲ An old woman in Ei Tu Hta camp received medical treatment in the jungle after fleeing home.
"Thailand Blocked Refugees with Barbed Wires”
On March 28 Burma Army launched a series of air strikes in several villages in the ethnic Karen rebel or the Karen National Union(KNU)’s territory. It was the first air strike in more than 20 years. Over 2,200 Karen refugees tried to flee to Thailand only to be stopped by Thai border security forces.
Saw Baho, a refugee in Ei Tu Hta refugee camp in Karen State said, “They [Thai security force] said that they guarantee that Burma Army won’t bomb the camp. So, we went back. After we went back, they placed the barbed wires so that we can’t re-enter.”
On the day of the air attack, Saw Baho, his family and more than 2,000 villagers in Ei Tu Hta camp crossed into Thailand. He said that Thai security force told the refugees that there will be no more air strikes so that the refugees should go home. After the refugees went back to Burma side, Thai soldiers placed barbed wires on the route where the refugee entered. Ei Tu Hta camp is located on Salween riverbank borders with Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province.
However, the refugees including children and eldest persons dare not to stay at home. They went to hide and sleep in jungle.
▲ Villagers in Karen State sleep in the jungle for fear of air strikes.
Like Ei Tu Hta, dozens of villagers in Way Bu Hta village on Salween riverbank also fled into Thailand on the same day for fear air strikes. They were later asked by Thai security forces to go back. Naw Beh Beh, a schoolteacher and a mother of two children in Way Bu Hta village said that villagers including her and her family still fear for air strikes after returning from Thailand.
“All villagers hide in jungle. But I decided to stay at my home someday because I have two kids and it is very difficult for me to live in the rain in jungle. But every time I heard they [Burma soldiers] shelled artillery, I and my kids went to sleep in jungle,” said Naw Beh Beh.
▲ A family of refugees in Ei Tu Hta camp tried to cross Salween River on March 27 for fear of air strikes.
Children and elderly were among those fleeing to Thailand. But there were no proper shelters. The refugees had to live in the heat on the riverbank for several days before they returned home, according to Naw Beh Beh.
According to media reports and relief worker groups, Thai authorities in Thai border village of Mae Sam Leap, didn’t allow aid groups and journalists to visit the refugees who live upstream of Salween River. Several media organizations including Thai and foreign journalists and photographers from The Reporters, Channel 3 TV, Reuters and NHK World visited Mae Sam Leap for reporting.
Myanmar military’s jet fighters came to drop bombs in several places every day from March 27 to April 1, said local sources and relief workers. As the air raid destroyed houses, schools, and stores, over 20,000 people in Karen State had to flee.
The Thai government has allegedly attempted to assist Myanmar’s junta. Thailand sent its military delegation to attend Burma Armed Force Day on March 27, the day the Burma Army bombed Karen villagers. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Thailand needs to engage and maintain a communications channel with the Burmese Army.
But the Thai Prime Minister also denied supporting Myanmar troops who stationed in KNU territories along Salween River. KNU sources and local villagers in Baan Mae Sam Leap witnessed Thai authorities trying to transport 700 sacks of rice for Burma Army troops along Salween River.
However, the plan failed as the KNU troops disagreed and threaten to shoot any boat if it carries rice for the Burma Army troop.
The Thai leader also told the media at a press conference that Thai soldiers didn’t point gun at the Karen refugees and forced them to go home, but shake hands and wish them well.
On March 31 UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs said in a statement, “We are shocked by the indiscriminate violence against civilians across the country.” He added, “We urgently call on countries across the region to offer refuge and protection to all those fleeing for safety. It is vital that anyone crossing the border, seeking asylum in another country, is able to access it.”
Refugees Also Flee to India and Bangladesh
Local and international media also reported that hundreds of activists, politicians, civil servants, protesters and media workers also have been fleeing to neighboring countries through the border of India, Thailand and Bangladesh.
Quoting an Indian lawmaker and a police official, Reuters reported on March 25 that more than 1,000 people fleeing violence in Myanmar have crossed into India’s Mizoram state since late February.
Reuters reported that the refugee influx could pose a diplomatic challenge for India which has close tie with the Burma army. India’s foreign ministry has previously expressed “deep concern” over the junta coup, saying democracy and rule of law must be upheld. The Indian government also issued a directive to four states sharing a border with Myanmar, including Mizoram, to tighten security, according to Reuters report quoting Indian officials.
Meanwhile, fighting also reported between Burma Army and ethnic Kachin rebel, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma, forcing hundreds to flee home. There are more than 12,000 villagers who have been internally displaced due to military activities in Karen State since February, according to relief group, Free Burma Rangers.
▲ A rice store house in Papun District, Karen State was destroyed after Burma Army launched air strikes.
"Neighboring Countries Should Accept Refugees”
Experts on Burma say that the current Myanmar crisis has become a regional issue as it poses a threat to its neighbors. Neighboring countries like Thailand and India have already been dealing with refugee influx and border security. Refugees who seek protection in neighbors should be accepted in sake of humanity, said rights groups.
Some observers and scholars voice concerns that Myanmar could even become a competition for superpower nations such as China, India, US, and Russia. While the UK and US pressure Myanmar, China and Russian protect Myanmar at the UN Security Council, according to the observers.
UN Security Council has already expressed “deep concern” over the junta coup and called for the release of all detained activists including Myanmar democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. UK called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the Myanmar crisis while UN and international relief organizations and foreign embassies voiced great concerns on Burma Army’s airstrikes against ethnic Karen civilians as well as the looming refugee crisis on the Thai border.
▲ Villagers including children hide in bunkers from air strikes.
A UK-based Burmese analyst Maung Maung Than said that Myanmar’s recent coup d'etat has become more of a global concern than a regional problem although China has claimed to be an internal affair.
“It clearly shows the Strategic Alliance with China and Burma is well practised when Myanmar is in great need to be defended at UN and other pressures. Even then there are concerns from the West of giving too much pressure will push Myanmar more to the mercy of China,” said Maung Maung Than.
“As the whole world has witnessed the escalating bloodbath and atrocities of the regime, it is high time for the international community to take immediate action or else there will be a high responsibility for the gross violations of human rights and crimes against humanity,” he added.
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