International

Thousands flee Myanmar airstrikes, complicating crisis

In this photo released by the Free Burma Rangers, Karen villagers gather in the forests as they hide from military airstrikes in the Deh Bu Noh area of the Papun district, north Karen state, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021. Thai authorities along its northwestern border braced themselves, Monday for a possible influx of more ethnic Karen villagers fleeing the fear of renewed air strikes from the Myanmar military. (Free Burma Rangers via AP)

MAE SAKOEP, Thailand (AP) — Thai soldiers began sending back some of the thousands of people who have fled a series of airstrikes by the military in neighboring Myanmar, people familiar with the matter said Monday. But Thai officials denied that as the insecurity on the border added a new dimension to an already volatile crisis set off by a coup in Myanmar.

The weekend strikes, which sent ethnic Karen people seeking safety in Thailand, represented another escalation in the violent crackdown by Myanmar’s junta on protests of its Feb. 1 takeover. On Saturday, more than 100 people were killed in and around demonstrations throughout the country — the bloodiest single day since the takeover.

The violence by the Myanmar military — both on the border and in cities around the country — raised the question of whether the international community would respond more forcefully than it has thus far to a coup that ousted the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and reversed years of progress toward democracy.

Britain called for a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council which will be held Wednesday afternoon, council diplomats said ahead of an official announcement. The council has condemned the violence and called for a restoration of democracy, but has not yet considered possible sanctions against the military, which would require support or an abstention by Myanmar’s neighbor and friend China.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the surge in killings by the military on Armed Forces Day “absolutely horrendous,” and urged greater unity and commitment by the international community to put pressure on the coup leaders to reverse course and go back to “a serious democratic transition.”

“My message to the military is very simple: Stop the killing. Stop the repression of the demonstrations. Release the political prisoners, and return power to those that have really the right to exercise it,” he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Guterres said he’s very worried that many trends look irreversible, “but hope is the last thing we can give up on.”

In response to reports of people fleeing the airstrikes, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha had said earlier Monday that the country didn’t want “mass migration” but that it was preparing for an influx of people and would take human rights issues into consideration.

But later, three people with knowledge of the matter said Thai soldiers had begun to force people to return to Myanmar.

“They told them it was safe to go back even though it is not safe. They were afraid to go back but they had no choice,” said a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network, a group of Karen civil society organizations in Myanmar.

Two other people confirmed that refugees were being sent back to Myanmar. All three spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

A spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, said claims that some Karen were being forced to return to Myanmar were “inaccurate.”

“Those reports cite information solely from non-official sources without confirming the facts from official sources on the ground. … In fact, the Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” Tanee Sangrat wrote in a statement.

In one border area, Thai soldiers refused to let journalists or curious locals approach or speak to those who had fled.

Myanmar aircraft carried out three strikes overnight Sunday, according to Dave Eubank, a member of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief agency that delivers medical and other assistance to villagers. The strikes severely injured one child but caused no apparent fatalities, he said.

Earlier strikes had sent about 2,500 people into northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province and left at least four people dead and many wounded, according to the agency.

One witness described a “chaotic scene” as he watched hundreds of people cross the river border Sunday into Mae Hong Son.

“There were many children and women. It seemed like they had basic supplies to sustain themselves, but I don’t know how long they can last without help,” said La Rakpaoprai, who buys snacks and other goods in the mountainous border village of Mae Sakoep and sells them in remote areas.

Video shot Sunday showed a group of villagers, including many young children, resting in a forest clearing inside Myanmar after fleeing their homes. They carried their possessions in bundles and baskets. In addition to those who have fled to Thailand, an estimated 10,000 people are believed to be displaced inside Myanmar’s northern Karen state, according to the Free Burma Rangers.

The bombings may have been in retaliation for a reported attack by the Karen National Liberation Army in which they claimed to have captured a Myanmar government military outpost on Saturday morning. The group is fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people.

According to Thoolei News, an online site that carries official information from the Karen National Union, eight government soldiers were captured and 10 were killed. The report said one Karen guerrilla died.

The government has battled the Karen fighters on and off for years — as it has with other ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy — but the airstrikes are a worrying development at a time when the junta is also violently suppressing anti-coup protests in cities across the country.

As of Sunday, at least 459 people have been killed since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The true toll is though to be higher.

On Saturday alone, at least 114 people across the country were killed by security forces, including several children — a toll that prompted a U.N. human rights expert to accuse the junta of committing “mass murder” and criticize the international community for not doing enough to stop it.

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters his administration is working on a response but offered no details. The United States has already levied new sanctions on the junta, as have other countries — but they have had little effect so far.

“It’s terrible. It’s absolutely outrageous. Based on the reporting I’ve gotten, an awful lot of people have been killed. Totally unnecessary,” Biden said.

The council has condemned the violence and called for a restoration of democracy, but has not yet considered possible sanctions against the military, which would require support or an abstention by Myanmar’s neighbor and friend China.

Despite the violence by security forces, protests have continued, and many used funerals of those killed on Saturday to show their resistance to the coup.

In Yangon, the country’s largest city, friends and family gathered Monday to say farewell to 49-year-old Mya Khaing, who was fatally shot on Saturday. As his coffin was moved toward the crematorium, mourners sang a defiant song from an earlier 1988 uprising against military rule.

“There is no pardon for you till the end of the world,” the mourners sang. “We will never forgive what you have done.”

Associated Press journalists Jerry Harmer in Bangkok and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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