Myanmar junta deepens violence with new air attacks
Violence in eastern Myanmar, including air raids that drove thousands of members of the Karen ethnic minority to seek shelter across the border in Thailand, have deepened with new air attacks by the military that seized power from an elected government last month.
Thailand’s prime minister denied that his country’s security forces had forced villagers who had fled from air strikes over the weekend back to Myanmar, saying they returned home of their own accord.
But the situation in eastern Myanmar appeared to be getting more dangerous.
Saw Taw Nee, head of the foreign affairs department of the Karen National Union (KNU), the main political body representing the Karen minority there, confirmed that new raids on Tuesday left six civilians dead and 11 wounded.
Dave Eubank, a member of the Free Burma Rangers, which provides medical assistance to villagers in the region, provided the same information.
Meanwhile, the US State Department on Tuesday ordered non-essential American diplomats and their families to leave Myanmar, expecting the protests to continue. The US earlier suspended a trade deal and imposed sanctions on junta leaders as well as restricting business with military holding companies.
The KNU issued a statement from one of its armed units saying the government’s “military ground troops are advancing into our territories from all fronts”, and vowed to respond.
“We have no other options left but to confront these serious threats posed by the illegitimate military junta’s army in order to defend our territory, our Karen peoples, and their self-determination rights,” said the statement.
It said the attacks were the latest in a series of actions by Myanmar’s military breaking a ceasefire agreement. The KNU has been fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people.
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking before the latest air attacks, said his country was ready to shelter anyone who was escaping fighting, as it has done many times for decades.
His comments came a day after humanitarian groups said Thailand had been sending back some of the thousands of people who had fled the air attacks by Myanmar’s military.
“There is no influx of refugees yet. We asked those who crossed to Thailand if they have any problem in their area. When they say no problem, we just asked them to return to their land first. We asked, we did not use any force,” Mr Prayuth told reporters.
“We won’t push them back,” he said. ’If they are having fighting, how can we do so? But if they don’t have any fighting at the moment, can they go back first?”
The governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, where as many as 3,000 refugees had sought shelter, said later that those still on Thai soil were expected to return to their own country in a day or two.
The attacks are a further escalation of the violent crackdown by Myanmar’s junta on protests against its February 1 coup.
At least 510 protesters have been killed since the coup, according to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which says the true toll is likely to be much higher. It says 2,574 people have been detained.
Protests continued Tuesday despite the deaths of more than 100 people on Saturday alone.
Engineers, teachers and students from the technology university in the southern city of Dawei marched without incident.
The number of protesters killed in the city rose to eight with the announcement of the death of a teenager who was shot by soldiers on Saturday as he rode a motorbike with two friends.
Medical workers in Mandalay, the country’s second biggest city, honoured three of their colleagues killed by security forces. The two doctors and a nurse were remembered in a simple ceremony in front of a banner with their photographs and the words “Rest In Power”.
At a cemetery in the biggest city, Yangon, three families gave their last farewells to relatives killed on Monday in a night of chaos in the South Dagon neighbourhood. Residents said police and soldiers moved through the streets firing randomly with live ammunition.
The coup that ousted the government of Aung San Suu Kyi reversed the country’s progress towards democracy since her National League for Democracy party won elections in 2015 after five decades of military rule.