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Heavy fighting reported along Myanmar-Thai border

Civilians flee conscription, casualties reported as soldiers of the ruling junta flee rebels
This handout photo released on April 13, 2023, by the Royal Thai Army shows people from Myanmar crossing the Moei river on the Thai-Myanmar border to return from Thailand's Mae Sot district in Tak province. Fighting has intensified along the border since last week as civilians flee conscription in Myanmar and also soldiers of the ruling junta fleeing rebels.

This handout photo released on April 13, 2023, by the Royal Thai Army shows people from Myanmar crossing the Moei river on the Thai-Myanmar border to return from Thailand's Mae Sot district in Tak province. Fighting has intensified along the border since last week as civilians flee conscription in Myanmar and also soldiers of the ruling junta fleeing rebels. (Photo: Royal Thai Army/ AFP)

Published: March 20, 2024 11:16 AM GMT
Updated: March 20, 2024 11:17 AM GMT

Heavy fighting has erupted across Myanmar, much of it near Thailand’s northwest border where at least 40 soldiers from the ruling junta were forced to cross after losing ground to the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

A soldier with the Peoples Defence Force (PDF) – the armed wing of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) – confirmed their plight saying they had crossed the border about 100 kilometers northwest of Mae Sot and that the fighting was intense.

“They crossed earlier this week, but the area is quite remote, and it took a bit of time to confirm. They will be held at a Thai military camp,” she told UCA News. “What they do next is difficult to say but I do hope that they defect to our side. We’ve had a lot of defections.”

Further north, heavy fighting and aerial bombardments by the military were also reported but the PDF claimed it had inflicted a heavy toll with at least 43 Myanmar junta forces killed in Kayah State and in the Sagaing, Mandalay and Magwe regions.

Artillery exchanges and gunfire have been heard along the border near here over the past week and in Mae Sot, a frontier town that has seen its populations swell with refugees who have fled their country since the military ousted an elected government about three years ago.

Many are also fleeing conscription.

Last month the junta announced compulsory conscription – a law that had remained dormant since 2010 – will be enacted by mid-April for men aged 18 to 35 and women between 18 and 27 years of age.

Military generals intend to enlist 5,000 people a month and say those who evade military service, or help others to do so, would be liable to up to five years imprisonment.

UN special rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews has said the introduction of conscription was a further sign of the junta’s “weakness and desperation” and warned the number of people fleeing into neighboring countries was expected to rise dramatically.

PDF troops agreed saying their own numbers had increased since the junta announced conscription would be introduced.

At a safe house in a neighborhood south of Mae Sot, one conscript said, “I crossed the border when the military told me I had to join them. I don’t want to join them, and I don’t want to fight the PDF or the EAOs,” he said referring to the ethnic armed organizations.

“Many of the people fighting for the ethnic armies like the KNLA are cousins and friends. The military bombed my village and destroyed homes and schools. So, if they force me to fight, I will fight with the PDF. I will fight the military,” he told UCA News.

On March 18, the office of UN Secretary-General António Guterres released a statement saying the expansion of the conflict was alarming and was “driving displacement and exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities and discrimination.”

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