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Karen refugees mobilize on Thai border to fight Myanmar army

According to the Karen National Union, more than 1,000 'political victims' are now in their territories

Carol Isoux, Mae Sot

Carol Isoux, Mae Sot

Updated: April 05, 2021 06:51 AM GMT
PARIS FOREIGN MISSIONS (MEP)
Karen refugees mobilize on Thai border to fight Myanmar army

Karen National Liberation Army soldiers take part in a parade for the 70th anniversary of the Karen revolution in January 2019 at a remote base on the Thai-Myanmar border. Ten of Myanmar's major militias have thrown their support behind Myanmar's anti-coup movement. (Photo: Karen National Union/AFP)

The toll continues to increase in the conflict between the Tatmadaw (armed forces) and civilians in Myanmar, with at least 564 dead including 47 children. Many civilians are taking refuge in border areas and beginning to organize resistance under the protection of ethnic militias.  

This is particularly true of the Karen, an ethnic group with a large Christian population. Several humanitarian organizations have asked the Thai government not to send them back to Myanmar.

"I didn't want to flee my country," says 33-year-old Saw Jay. "But I'm more useful here than dead or in prison.”

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"Because of the internet blackouts in Myanmar, we can't do much. My job here is to collect funds and transfer them, to distribute them on the ground, to decide with other resistance fighters on the strategy to follow,” he added.

The young NGO director and former communications adviser to an elected official in Yangon entered Thailand illegally three weeks ago. At the back of a inconspicuous restaurant in the town of Mae Sot, on the Thai-Myanmar border, he explained he is organizing the resistance from outside. 

In recent days, the Thai army has reportedly increased security in the area and few people are now able to cross. Most of the fugitives are taking refuge in the outlying areas on the Myanmar side of the border, protected by the ethnic militias.

According to the Karen National Union (KNU), a political organization that campaigns for autonomy in Karen state in eastern Myanmar, more than 1,000 "political victims" are now in the territories controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a militia that claims nearly 7,000 soldiers.

"Most of them are leaders of the civil disobedience movement," says KNU spokesman P'doh Hman. "Activists, doctors, teachers ... some members are those who have deserted the police and army because they did not want to shoot at the people. Several thousand are hiding in the north, among the Shan and Kachin minorities, in jungle villages controlled by other militias.”

Most of the members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the self-proclaimed Myanmar parliament in exile, are among these internally displaced persons. The CPRH consists of parliamentarians elected in the November 2020 general election, from both the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) and Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House), with representatives from the National League for Democracy, Ta'ang National Party and Kayah State Democratic Party. 

The influx of people into these ethnic territories poses serious resource problems in regions facing subsistence issues in normal times.

"In the case of the latter, it is not possible to see how this can be done without the help of the local population. In some camps, there are 50 of us sustaining on rations for 30 people. Since it is the dry season, there is not enough water either. Sometimes we have to drink water from the Moei River, which is full of toxic waste," says P'doh Hman.

"In addition, the presence of certain people wanted by the junta compromises the security of the villagers.” 

In recent days, clashes between the Tatmadaw and the KNLA have resumed in areas normally protected by a ceasefire, particularly around the town of Hpa-An, where several arrests have taken place, and in Mutraw, where the first airstrikes in nearly 20 years killed at least three people on March 28.

The day before, soldiers from the KNLA's fifth brigade captured eight Tatmadaw soldiers and confiscated a stockpile of firearms, with photos to prove it. According to the KNU, between 5,000 and 8,000 people were forced to leave their villages because of the clashes.

According to NGOs, more than 3,000 Karen villagers have tried to cross the border into Thailand: more than 500 have been escorted back into Myanmar territory under military escort, others are quarantined in camps dedicated to their reception, and the injured are being treated in a local hospital. 

"We tried to send them food," says a French missionary priest located near Mae Sot. "There is a form of solidarity that is being put in place with the Karen on the Thai side of the border."

Since the beginning of the movement, the tone towards minorities has changed. The protection given by ethnic militias to members of the majority Bamar is reversing the traditional power relations in Myanmar.

For decades, the fight against the junta has relied heavily on the participation of ethnic groups and their militias in the resistance movement. 

"Normally ignored, minorities are now at the center of the political spectrum," says Saw Jay.

Dr. Sasa, the CRPH's representative abroad, has promised justice for the Rohingya people, the Muslim minority who were victims of ethnic cleansing in 2017. Several groups of demonstrators in Yangon have held up signs asking for "forgiveness for our Rohingya brothers.” Unthinkable just a few months ago, when even uttering the word "Rohingya" in Yangon was considered provocative.

"There is a new awareness," says Hsaeng Noung of the Shan Women's Action Network.

"Earlier, many Bamars have not believed in their army's abuses and considered it international propaganda. But now they are thinking: if the soldiers are able to kill unarmed demonstrators, women and children, under the eye of the cameras in the cities, what could they have done in these remote areas?

"But ethnic leaders, including the Karen, are waiting for guarantees of a federal democratic union with more direct political representation, autonomy and control over natural resources before they will commit themselves further to the civil resistance movement."

On March 31, the first major step was announced by the CRPH: the abolition of the 2008 constitution, which had been feverishly awaited, in order to lay the foundations for a new national accord.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.

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