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Myanmar refugees return to Myawaddy as fighting subsides

Cambodia backs Thailand in calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release
Returning Myanmar nationals ride a pick-up van back to Myanmar on the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship bridge after crossing the Tak immigration checkpoint in Thailand's Mae Sot district on April 12.

Returning Myanmar nationals ride a pick-up van back to Myanmar on the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship bridge after crossing the Tak immigration checkpoint in Thailand's Mae Sot district on April 12. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 23, 2024 09:21 AM GMT
Updated: April 23, 2024 11:28 AM GMT

About 5,500 refugees who fled into Thailand are returning home after fierce weekend fighting around Myawaddy, on Myanmar’s southeast border, subsided and anti-regime forces called for cooperation and further negotiations with Bangkok.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin was expected in neighboring Mae Sot on April 23 for a situation update, including the provision of aid for civilians affected by the civil war on both sides of the border.

The opposition National Unity Government (NUG), its armed wing the People’s Defence Force (PDF), and some 20 armed ethnic organizations (EAOs) are calling for increased cooperation with each other and direct negotiations with neighboring countries.

Thailand has called for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, indicating it was time to negotiate with anti-regime forces, and has been widely praised for its treatment of refugees.

“This action portrays the Royal Thai government as being a good neighbor and the people of Myanmar will always remember this support and assistance,” an NUG statement said while urging ethnic allies and affiliated groups to cooperate with the Thai government.

The Karen National Union (KNU) remained in full control of Karen State and Myawaddy, a strategically important border city near Mae Sot in Thailand, on April 23 after fending off repeated attacks by Myanmar’s military aimed at retaking the city of about 200,000 people.

"They want to return and just make sure everything is okay"

“It’s quiet now. Almost all those who fled have gone back,” said a KNU-PDF source. “About 7,000 people had crossed into Mae Sot over the last few days but there’s only about 1,500 left."

“A lot of people didn’t want to leave their homes and their personal possessions in Myawaddy, so they want to return and just make sure everything is okay, that what they left behind is still there,” she said. “But they are still facing food and water shortages.”

In Mae Sot, hospitals were under pressure with hundreds of refugees requiring medical attention and the KNU-PDF source also said low-level skirmishes were still breaking out near Shwe Kokko, 20 kilometers north of Myawaddy, and along the Asia Highway.

Shew Kokko is a notorious hub for Chinese crime syndicates and a report by the United States Institute of Peace, released on April 22, found human trafficking and scam centers were flourishing in Karen state amid the conflict.

“The cause is the weakening of Myanmar’s corrupt coup regime in the face of a rising, multi-front revolution,” it said. “And perhaps more importantly an aggressive push by China’s law enforcement authorities.”

“It is time for the United States to encourage Myanmar’s neighbors to form a multi-country task force that can tackle the Karen sanctuary and cut the inter-state ties that connect the criminal networks and allow them to sustain their malign activities.”

"Like it or not, all stakeholders need to be involved"

Elsewhere, Cambodia, once criticized for being too close to Myanmar’s military and its chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has backed Thai calls for the “immediate and full release” of Suu Kyi.

“To find a political solution in Myanmar, like it or not, all stakeholders need to be involved,” So Naro, the minister delegate attached to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, told the Khmer Times.

“Only with the help of key players as well as internal political concessions can a political solution be reached,” he said.

“A political solution will not be possible if the other party leaders are detained and the other party does not make any concessions.”

However, a political solution involving Hlaing is unlikely, the KNU-PDF source said, given that battlefield successes over the last five months have resulted in the military losing access to its borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh.

That leaves the military in control of Barma state but encircled by the ethnic states following a dry season offensive that took many including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by surprise.

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