Tan Hui Yee and

Kannikar Petchkaew

 

 

BANGKOK – Some 1,000 Myanmar villagers fled across the Salween River into Thailand on Thursday (April 1) as Bangkok braced itself for the growing impact of political turmoil across the border.

“They fled across the river again today since there’s a military attack… The number is around 1,000 this afternoon,” Colonel Chaidan Grisanasuwarn, commander of the special task force of Thailand’s 7th infantry division overseeing the area in Mae Hong Son province, told The Straits Times. “Some of them have left. We expect them to cross back soon.”

Over 2,000 ethnic Karen villagers remain in limbo after they fled across the riverine border to Thailand over the weekend. While Thailand denies pushing them back, the villagers alleged they were forced back across on Monday but nevertheless remain too afraid to return to their homes for fear of more bombings.

Instead, they have been crowding around on the banks of the Salween as well as the nearby forest and said they are running out of food.

The villagers fled Ei Tu Hta, a camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar, after the Myanmar military launched airstrikes on districts controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), an armed ethnic group opposing the Feb 1 military coup.

When contacted by phone, the Ei Tu Hta camp leader Saw Ka Doe told ST conditions among his people were becoming desperate, with food supplies running low and no signs of aid arriving.

“No rice, nothing,” he said. “People are losing any hope that food aid may arrive. Some of us were trying to fish for food, but today everyone just hid and stayed as quiet as we could.”

“We desperately ask the world to not forget about us.”

Among those stranded on the Salween riverbank are children, the elderly, and the sick.

“There are only eight sacks of rice left for more than 2,000 of us here,” community leader Naw Then Nay told ST on Wednesday.

While five border crossings in Mae Hong Son province were reopened for border trade on Thursday, it is not clear if food aid can reach the Myanmar villagers from Thailand.

Colonel Chaidan said the Thai authorities were in discussion with the Myanmar authorities on the reopening of transport routes.

On March 27, the Myanmar military bombed KNU-run village Deh Bu Noh, killing at least two villagers. On Tuesday, it bombed a KNU-controlled gold panning site in the Bago region, killing 11 people, according to the Irrawaddy news outlet.

Thai authorities have let at least seven wounded Myanmar nationals across the border for treatment.

“Thailand has long been committed to our humanitarian tradition,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said on Thursday.

“We respect our international obligations and uphold our domestic laws in addressing the situation of those seeking to enter Thailand including due to unrest or fighting.

“Once the situation settles and it is safe to do so, groups can voluntarily return but will not be forced to do so if there are substantiated claims of danger.”

He added that agencies on the ground have made preparations to coordinate support for refugees should the situation escalate.

Thailand is still housing some 80,000 refugees from Myanmar. All have not been repatriated or resettled in third countries over the past three decades.

Brewing tension between Myanmar’s military and armed ethnic groups opposing the coup now threatens to flare into large-scale conflict that could send thousands more surging across the border.

At least 536 people have been killed by the junta since the coup and over 2,000 people detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar human rights organisation.

Thailand has reportedly asked Myanmar’s new military rulers to reduce the level of violence.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has urged Myanmar’s neighbours to provide sanctuary for those fleeing the escalating violence in the country.

Its assistant high commissioner for protection, Ms Gillian Triggs, said in a statement: “As the situation in Myanmar deteriorates further, we call on states to continue their life-saving humanitarian tradition of safeguarding the lives of all those forced to flee.