Mae Sot (Thailand) : Thousands of ethnic Karen villagers have been forced to flee across the border into Thailand over the past few weeks as the Myanmar army steps up its assault on the Karen rebels.
Myanmar’s army and a pro-government militia called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attacked the border region near Thailand in a final push to destroy the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been fighting for independence for the last 60 years.
Fierce fighting has forced more than 4,000 ethnic Karen villagers to flee across the border for their safety since the beginning of June.
“If the fighting continues, at least 8,000 more villagers will have to escape across the border or die at the hands of the soldiers,” KNU general secretary Zipporah Sein said.
Some of the recent refugees are crowded into the grounds of a temple, a couple of kilometres inside Thailand, where they are healthy but lack access to basic necessities, aid workers said.
“They are not emaciated, though many have walked for more than seven days to escape from the Myanmar army,” Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UN refugee agency UNHCR, said from Noh Bo temple near the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
“They hurriedly left with nothing but the clothes on their back,” she told DPA.
“We desperately need soap, toothbrushes and cooking utensils,” said Ma Theingyi, a 33-year-old mother of five. “More than anything though, we need clothes for our children.”
Most of the refugees are women and children. Some of the men stayed behind to look after the fields, aid workers said.
The mass exodus of Karen villagers began more than a month ago after the DKBA told the local village headman that they intended to recruit more soldiers and porters.
“We knew what that meant, all the able-bodied men would be used by the army in one way or another, and on top of that we would have to give them money and food rations,” said Pa Naw Naw, 41. He fled with his wife and three children, but left his 11-year-old son behind to keep an eye on their fields and livestock.
The KNU is one of many ethnic groups in Myanmar that have fought the ruling military junta for autonomy. Most of the other rebel groups now have ceasefire agreements with the government. Over the past 20 years, military action, internal strife and defections have whittled away at the KNU’s strength.
The Karen insurgency may now be facing its final battle.
“We will fight to the bitter end,” said David Thakerbaw, a spokesman for the KNU. He has been fighting against the Myanmar army for most of his life, joining as a 14-year-old recruit, some 60 years ago.