Teerachai Sanjaroenkijthaworn

Map showing important places on the Thai-Myanmar border, Salween River, photo credit by Mymekong.org.

It has been more than 2 months that people fleeing civil war from Karen State and some from Karenni State in Myanmar had to travel through forests, gorges and across rivers far from their residence, including those involuntarily growing up and living as a large community in Ei Tu Hta camp after escaping from the war between Myanmar Army and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) during the past 3 decades after the camp and headquarters, Manerplaw, of Karen National Union (KNU) were smashed. Many people may have to flee their whole lives, more than 70 years in total since the Burmese Declaration of Independence from British colonization after World War II, for long-term freedom. Despite the independence, it showed a sign of conflict between ethnic groups and the Myanmar Army as they wanted to liberate from power tightening by merging all ethnic groups into Myanmar using ruthless military power.

This summary report summarizes war escaping situation of the people who are mostly Karen in Myanmar from March 27 to May 27, 2021 which may not be in clear sequence of events but in accordance with interesting issues. However, to prevent chronology confusion, a short summary of important events will be put in place at the end of this report.

New wave of migration: a post-coup fight to reclaim democracy and independence in their territories

The story of this recent war escape began with an emergence of Myanmar pro-democracy people and various groups of ethnic army clearly showing their common stand in protecting the people and moving forward to reclaim their democracy; rights and freedoms that were taken by the coup d’état. The latest coup seizing power of the civilian government has been carried out by the Myanmar’s military or Tatmadaw on February 1, 2021. Suppression of dissent and of those who only want freedom living on their lands therefore officially started again after the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed by several ethnic armed groups in 2015 and some previous bilateral ceasefires in 2012. Despite such ceasefire agreements, the Myanmar Army’s expansion of military bases and barracks was increasing in Karen State giving Karen people more tension and distrust towards the Myanmar armed forces.

Earlier in December of last year, people in Karen State came out to protest and the KNLA issued a statement urging the Myanmar Army to withdraw its troops from the area but did not receive any response. Moreover, the post-coup battle in Karen State seemed to be more intense when the Myanmar Army began to escalate its attacks into Mutraw, clashes between the Myanmar Army and the KNLA happened periodically. The KNLA has tightened up the area by blocking various routes to prevent the Myanmar Army from transporting supplies. On March 21, the KNLA 5th Brigade issued a statement opposing an effort to deliver 700 sacks of rice and supplies which were earlier found on the bank of Salween River by Mae Sam Laep villagers from the Thai border to the Myanmar’s military base on the opposite side. Tension on both sides continued to rise and resulting in repeated military operations. The KNLA could later attack and seize Thi Mu Hta military base situated within Karen territory on March 27.             

March 27, 2021 was the day to celebrate the establishment of the Myanmar Armed Forces or Tatmadaw, Thai authorities also sent representatives to participate in a military parade. The Myanmar Army has demonstrated its might to the world as well as to those countries having their representatives in such ceremony by launching air strikes on the KNLA. It used fighter jets for bombing together with mortar attack which did not aim directly at the KNLA bases, but also at the areas where people live such as Ei Tu Hta Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp  and several villages in Day Bu No, Mutraw district. Large numbers of people randomly live in these areas. Such attack of the Myanmar Army massively damaged a number of buildings, houses and schools were destroyed and hard to be repaired. Villagers had to flee their villages in the said areas as early as the night of March 27. This huge attack on March 27 did not only damage buildings and properties, it also resulted in 3 deaths and 10 injuries. At 1 AM the next day, 2 people were further reported dead and 1 injured, it was a brutal night for the innocent Karen people in Mutraw.

A report of the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) summed up the number of people fleeing war during 4 days (March 27-31) of the Myanmar Army’s military operations showing that more than 5,500 of Karen people from 19 villages in Mutraw district crossed the Salween River to Thailand in the border areas of Mae Hong Son province. They lived in groups on the riverbank and in the forests and there still were approximately 2,200 persons in Ei Tu Hta camp. Up to May 25, 2021, it was found that more than 70,000 people from 3 townships (Luthaw, Butho and Dwelo) in Mutraw district (including those who cross border between Thailand and Myanmar) had to become internally displaced persons escaping armed conflict. The figure represented more than 90% of Mutraw’s population out of about 80,000 people.  

Living conditions of displaced persons

Villagers fled along the Salween River and crossed to Thailand were mostly vulnerable groups in society comprising of women (some with early stage of pregnancy and some ready for labor); children; sick and old people including those with disabilities who needed to get away and hide in the forests. They had to take refuge in caves; crevices; cliffs as well as build temporary underground bunkers at some spots. Many were still displaced within Myanmar, but more than thousands of them residing close to Thailand’s border considered that their neighboring country would be more secure.     

They scattered stayed along the Salween River, crossed back and forth between two sides being scared of the ongoing air strikes towards Karen and Karenni States by the Myanmar Army. While the situation was still unsettled, patrolling/spy drones; bombers as well as lots of cannonballs took just a short moment to get ready to hit target areas which are people’s houses including their farming lots at any time.  

War refugees/IDPs carrying elderly people as they seek refuge along the Salween River, photo by Salween Villagers

It was not easy to flee, survive and cross back and forth the Salween River between their communities or refuge areas near Karen border and Thai side. To travel to the riverbank, they needed to carry their own stuffs. When arriving and to get on a boat, it was then required fuel. According to the number of people and belongings, many rounds of boat trip were used for the whole group. 

Karen people’s escape to a better place by crossing the Salween River this time was extremely difficult since their use of national border as a protective shield was denied by the neighboring country’s soldiers. Moreover, most of them were women; pregnant women ready for labor; children; elderly as well as disabled persons who had to be apart from family without any foods and necessities due to time limits, they first needed to survive. Some have moved around with serious wound got from both shrapnel and burns in crossfire and finally had to be treated in a hospital on the Thai side in Mae Hong Son province. After the treatment, however, they must return to the same circle of fleeing back and forth.   

Not only the threats of war, that is to say tons of bullets; grenades; sound of fighter jets as well as surveillance drones flying above the areas of Karen State, refugees also had to face with difficult conditions during the rainy season. This torrential monsoon rain made undirected life in the wild even more difficult because they had to deal with diseases especially malaria, many refugees were reported to already have malaria infection. They also had to all the time encounter other waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea since they could not have access to clean water. They relied on traditional water filtration methods using gravels; rocks; soil; sand and filter cloth to purify water from the streams until it was clean enough to be consumed: drinking and cooking. 

War refugees/IDPs fleeing war crossing a stream, photo by Salween villagers

As for Karen people’s normal culture during the rainy season, they started with preparing their lands/soils and seeding rice in order to produce foods for consumption throughout the year. They could not easily return to their farming areas at this moment which resulted in long-term food shortages in the community. They therefore had to rely on in-kind donations from Thai people; Karen ethnic groups in Thailand who were like their relatives as well as other Myanmar’s ethnic people working in Thailand who were ready to help. However, these in-kind donations and necessities had to face with complex bureaucratic procedures to the extent that they were not allowed to reach any reception areas or shelters.        

In each journey to flee military assault, refugees in each community must help taking care of the most vulnerable people. In the community that have faced decades of war, there were people with physical disabilities; those with  intellectual disabilities; malaria patients; other kinds of patient; pregnant women approaching labor; nursing mothers as well as some centenarian people who could not even walk fast or had dementia and were unable to take good care of themselves. On the past May 23, after more than 2 months of the first migration and despite the setting of reception points and temporary shelters, it was reported that a hundred-year-old woman died while fleeing the war as her body was too weak to continue.    

The KPSN’s report further stated that 16 innocent people were killed and 12 injured in the Myanmar’s air strikes during March 27-April 1. In addition to direct war-weapon deaths, there were still unknown numbers of deaths in the aftermath and the displacement due to hunger; illnesses without any proper treatments; weakness from malnutrition; demand for safe shelters; being in tension including the difficulty of living open-air almost all the time. Apart from media report of pregnant woman died on the way to give birth in Thai hospital, a handicapped child was recently reported dead while fleeing to Thailand and it was expected more of the unknown numbers.

Nonetheless, the refugees now need safe shelters as well as humanitarian assistance from outside, particularly in-kind donations or necessities such as dried and fresh foods; children and women’s items; medications; portable water purifier; cooking tools; pillows; mosquito nets; tarpaulins; etc. These are fundamental needs for survival since they insisted that in the end they still preferred to return to live peacefully in their home country rather than staying long-term here as accused by the Thai security agency and government.

Living conditions of war refugees, photo by Salween villagers and the Border News Agency.

Clashes and battles in Karen State

Even though the Myanmar’s military junta announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire starting from 1 April claiming that it was for celebrating the Thingyan or Songkran festival, but in fact the Myanmar Army has periodically conducted military operations. Heavy attacks began in late April after the KNLA Brigade 5 seized Myanmar’s Thaw Lae Hta outpost opposite Thailand’s Mae Sam Laep village, an extensive recapture and a defense of the remaining military bases has started again. 

Later, though the heavy air strikes during the end of April have faded as the Myanmar’s armed forces turned its focus to Kachin and Chin States, but its on-ground operations in Mutraw district still periodically happened particularly when the Myanmar Army called for 500 reinforcements from the Border Guard Force (BGF), most of them are Karen who have conflicts with the KNU, into Thaton township where situated the KNLA Brigade 1 sharing a border with Mutraw.

On May 7, the Karen Information Center (KIC) and the KPSN summarized the fighting from March 27 onwards stating that the Myanmar Army has operated more than 27 times of air strikes using bomber aircraft and sky shootings. There were also 47 bombs; 407 clashes between the two armed forces and 575 cannonballs fired into communities.  Not only houses; schools and hospitals were damaged, but also 14 civilians killed and 28 injured, these however did not include the number of displaced persons.     

Harsh ground clashes between the two sides began to extend more to Thai border, on May 20, a fighting between the Myanmar armed forces and the KNLA took place at Dagwin base opposite Tha Ta Fang village, Mae Yuam sub-district, Mae Sariang district, Mae Hong Son province. Such fighting brought about 3 unidentified bullets crossing over to the Thai side landed in the forest of northern Tha Ta Fang village without any impacts on people and their properties. Thailand’s 7th Infantry Regiment Special Task Force responsible of the area has carried out an evacuation of Thai people living in the said spot and has issued a protest letter through the Thailand-Myanmar Border Consortium (TBC). And the Thai military later raised the national flag as a declaration to protect its country.    

In the morning of May 22, there was again a clash between the Myanmar Army and the KNLA’s soldiers at Dagwin outpost opposite Tha Ta Fang village. To protect their bases, Myanmar’s soldiers used small rifles; machine guns and 8 shots of (unknown type) grenade launcher towards a target approximately 1 kilometer within Myanmar side resulting in serial ground combat situation up to now. The refugees themselves remained vigilant and did not dare to return home in spite of a push back and still took refuge near the Salween River.     

Management of refugees – What did the Thai government say?

Thai security forces search items and proceed to push back war refugees, photo by Transborder Nwes

Thousands of war refugees took only a few days to gradually migrate to the Salween riverbanks, those who crossed to the Thai side hoping to be protected by Thai border had to be disappointed since the reality was not what they thought. On March 29, 2 days after a temporary migration to the other side, Thai soldiers tried to push the refugees back to Karen State claiming that it was a negotiation with reasons or a seeking of “understanding” rather than using forces. However, according to the principle of non-refoulement which is a customary international law, such action was considered a massive neglect of humanitarian assistance. Apart from the refoulement that has been taking place during March 29-31, Thai security forces also built up its all-access blocking. Barbed wire was laid along the banks of the Salween River too.  

As stated in a press release of the relevant government agencies, Thailand was afraid that accepting the refugees will cause the spread of COVID-19 and the relationship problem with Myanmar. It also worried that these refugees will stay for long as those in the existing 9 shelters, new refugees were therefore required to remain under the military’s control in order to push back as soon as possible without any access of the medias; humanitarian organizations; international organizations; Thai people, including other government agencies. The operations and decision making were completely monopolized by the security agency in spite of the fact that civil society has issued a statement requiring a transfer of powers and missions to administrative agencies with experiences in managing refugees such as the Ministry of Interior. This would lead to an opening of humanitarian assistance channels for international organizations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in particular, as well as civil society to together help and support humanitarian missions.  

After the Myanmar Army’s Thaw Lae Hta (or Mae Ra Hta) base was hit and captured by the KNLA Brigade 5, the 2nd wave of migration then happened again. As many of the refugees previously experienced push-backs by the Thai security forces, they decided not to cross the Salween River to Thailand but to take refuge in the forests and caves near the river. There were nonetheless thousands of people (more than 3,000 found later) who decided to cross the Salween seeking refuge in Thailand as they used to while the response of Thai security forces was not much different. Even though the authorities initially allowed them to take refuge in the reception points or several temporary shelters in Mae Sariang district, continuous push-backs were still reported claiming that there were no more battles and air strikes in Karen State. As for the refugees themselves, they have consistently been asking the authorities for a safe place until the situation is settled.         

Refugee puzzle numbers and mysterious information

Accurate number of refugees is very essential for planning a proper humanitarian aid that meets the needs of the refugees themselves. However, the numeric data originated and sent out from the security department to provincial agencies as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was often in contrast with the refugee numbers collected by civil society and the people living close to Salween border. For example, civil society informed that the security officials constantly pushed the refugees back during the 1st migration, but the security agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that they had no such pushing back policy and affirmed to handle the situation based on human rights and humanitarian principles. Their returning home was a voluntary journey.     

And during the 2nd migration after the KNLA seized the Myanmar Army’s Thaw Lae Hta outpost and followed by more air strikes as well as ground attacks of the Myanmar armed forces together with the BGF targeting Karen State, thousands of Karen people consequently had to take refuge again within Thai border. The Thai government through Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center, Mae Hong Son province reported that there have been Myanmar people escaping the unrest and taking refuge in the temporary shelters since April 28 and there has been an additional migration later (May 12) for fear of the Myanmar Army moving out from Bawlakhe district to Hpasawng township of Karenni State which is in the north of Chawprakee village, Mae Sariang district, Mae Hong Son province. Local news sources and some media outlets however clarified that some of this refugee group actually arrived since late March to early April after the air strikes on March 27-28 but it was not counted or reported at the beginning.

This ambiguous figures caused confusion to the real situation in the areas. In addition, lack of transparency along with deliberately media blocking by the security forces from access to the areas where the refugees taking refuge made it impossible to point out the exact numbers and hideouts of the refugees. It certainly affected public perception of the facts and would not lead to long-term solutions.

People’s kindness blocked by Thai bureaucracy: providing assistance becomes a crime

As soon as the Myanmar Army’s air strikes on March 27 were reported, NGOs and civil society, including Thai people have expressed their intention to help the refugees in different ways, for example, opening bank accounts for fundraising in order to buy necessities such as rice; dried foods; mattress; pillow; mosquito net; children’s stuffs; medicines; tarp as well as fresh foods to give to those who fled the war scattered staying along the Salween River both on the Thai and Karen State sides. Most of the CSOs and Karen people’s networks accepting donations and distributing them to those in need are located in Mae Hong Son province such as Thai Karen Group (KTG); Network of People in Salween Basin; Legal Status Network Foundation; Development Center for Children and Community Network and etc. who could find a way to deliver the aforesaid items to the refugees’ hands. This was called an illegal way since the bureaucracy and border management for humanitarian assisting were monopolized by a few security agencies. The actions of CSOs and Thai people in helping fellowmen were turned by the state into crimes. They as the refugees’ relatives sharing the same culture and language had to find ways to hand over the donations and to monitor the situation at the same time. Apart from such secret channel, another possible way was through customs channel transferring the donations as “goods” to the refugees along the Salween River both on the Thai and Karen State sides.  

On April 5, the Royal Thai Armed Forces began to allow the transport of goods by boat to the IDP at Ei Tu Hta camp as well as other places along the Salween where they were hiding in Karen State. The donations were however required to do through Mae Hong Son’s Red Cross office and Red Cross District Branch of Mae Sariang; Khun Yuam or Pai and were delivered by military personnel. The government’s incomprehensive and unclear announcement made many people and trucks carrying both dried and fresh donated foods unable to be directly handed over to the refugees, the donated items could not be placed at the Ranger army’s checkpoint or either in Mae Sam Laep village. Moreover, it was later found that many of dried foods and other donated things were still pending at Mae Sariang and other Red Cross District Branches according to the security agency’s announcement. The local CSOs reflected that this mechanism was quite slow and unable to promptly help the refugees.     

Transporting of the donated items was harder especially when using the Salween River route was unavoidable, even though Mae Hong Son province has announced the opening of 5 checkpoints for border trade which have been closing since November 1, 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID-19. As it was reported on April 17, 20 and 22 that the Myanmar soldiers at Dagwin base opposite Tha Ta Fang village in Sop Moei district have intercepted the cargo boat of Mae Sam Laep villagers for checking in spite of the fact that there was no rules to stop for the Myanmar Army to inspect before. Only 3 days after that, another intercepting shoot was reported. Furthermore, Mae Sam Laep villager’s boat carrying 4 border patrol polices of company 337 was shot and had to stop and be checked by the Myanmar soldiers. The non-retaliation of the Thai security forces this time has been questioned a lot by the media as well as by the Thai people about the military’s duty to protect the border and the sovereignty.

In addition to mobilizing necessities and finding ways to transport them to the refugees, the civil society groups jointly did policy advocacy and showed their standpoint urging the Thai government as well as ASEAN to be by the side of the people of Myanmar who were extremely persecuted and killed by the Myanmar’s military junta. They also called for assistance measures for the refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Thailand by issuing several statements. On April 5, Friends Without Borders Foundation along with more than 62 civil society networks published a statement with 5 demands as follows:  

  1. The government must not deny a seeking for asylum. The security agency has to accept those fleeing war and persecution with an obvious reason for seeking asylum to take refuge in Thailand in a temporary shelter set up by the government in accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles as previously announced to the press.
  2. After welcoming the refugees into the shelters, the security agency has to transfer the responsibility in providing refugees’ protection to district and provincial departments of the Ministry of Interior that will coordinate with local health authorities in order to play a leading role in controlling diseases as well as with experienced humanitarian organizations which are ready for supporting budget.
  3. The government must not obstruct but facilitate the Thai people wishing to help the refugees. Supporting the relationship between the two countries’ people sector will promote the stability of the country in the long run.       
  4. In case of an influx of refugees from the areas where believed to have people fleeing persecution from the city included, the government should allow the UNHCR access to such group of refugees. The mechanism of protected person screening committee should also be used according to Regulation of the Office of the Prime Minister on the Screening of Aliens who Enter into the Kingdom and are Unable to Return to the Country of Origin B.E. 2562 in order to screen for those who need specific protection as they may not yet be able to return to their homes like the villagers living in border communities.    
  5. Decisions to facilitate the repatriation of refugees must be a joint role of the agencies providing protection for refugees, not the role of the security agency alone.

The 2nd wave of migration started again after the KNLA Brigade 5 launching its operation to seize the Myanmar’s Thaw Lae Hta camp opposite Mae Sam Laep village, Sop Moei district in the early morning around 5 A.M. of April 27, the incident ended around 7 A.M. This marked as a recapture of the base and the area by the KNU after nearly 3 decades, it however caused an evacuation of Mae Sam Laep villagers, especially almost 450 of them living close to the Salween River, consisting of people of various ethnics and religions like Karen; Tai Yai and Muslim, to the shelter at Huay Kong Kad school located approximately 7 kilometers inland from Mae Sam Laep village with the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment as guardian. And later, there were administrative agencies such as Mae Sam Laep Subdistrict Administrative Organization; public health agency, including charities as well as local civil society came to help and facilitate the provision of basic needs. But in the next few days, they gradually returned to the village since the event on the other side of the Salween River at Thaw Lae Hta outpost became calm and the Karen troops were able to capture such base and successfully raise the Karen national flag to the peak despite the continued air strikes and clashes in Dagwin base area.

“Ban Huai Kong Kad School” is used as a temporary refuge for Mae Sam Lab villagers, photo by Friends Against Dictatorship (FAD)
Civil society organizations bring some dry and fresh products to Mae Sam Lab villagers at Ban Huai Kong Kad School, photo by Friends Against Dictatorship (FAD).
Muslim shelter, Ban Huai Kong Kad School area, photo by Prachatai

Although the Karen Army was able to clear off the area; seize Thaw Lae Hta base and successfully declare their victory, it also brought about a massive exodus which was the 2nd time of Karen people in Mutraw district after the almost-completed returning to Karen State on April 22 due to the Myanmar Army’s retaliation using air strikes towards Mutraw again. These intense attacks happened around Dagwin base opposite Tha Ta Fang village of Mae Hong Son province, the villagers could evidently hear and see the Myanmar’s fighter jets flying close to the border.    

In this migration, from the evening of April 27 and a whole day of April 28, more than 3,000 Karen people have crossed the river seeking for shelters. Tha Ta Fang people on the Thai side also had to escape to the safe inland areas protected by the security agency.  

However, the Mae Hong Son’s Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center stated on May 27 that there were totally 1,039 refugees currently on the Thai side in 4 of the reception areas or shelters divided into 1) 186 persons in Huay Mara temporary shelter, Mae Kong sub-district, Mae Sariang district 2) 77 persons in Huay Jok Lor temporary shelter, Mae Kong sub-district, Mae Sariang district 3) 746 persons in Huay Ko Krae temporary shelter, Mae Kong sub-district, Mae Sariang district and 4) 30 persons in a temporary shelter at Sao Hin village, Sao Hin sub-district, Mae Sariang district. As for a total of 221 Thai people, particularly in Tha Ta Fang and nearby areas who were separated from the refugees from Karen State, had to stay in 2 civilian collection points: 181 persons in Huay Kong Kood area, Mae Yuam sub-district, Mae Sariang district and 4 persons in Huay Kong Kam, Mae Yuam sub-district, Mae Sariang district.

From the beginning of the 2nd migration up until the establishment of a provincial working group of Mae Hong Son, it seemed that the order of the Mae Hong Son’s Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center tried to prohibit CSOs or people from directly hand over the donated items as well as the necessities to the refugees and also still disallowed the media from publishing stories in the areas referring to the situation of the spread of COVID-19.  

International organizations and ASEAN’s capability

In spite of ASEAN’s special meeting on Myanmar held on April 24 with 5 points of consensus as follow:

  1. There should be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties must exercise patience;
  2. Constructive dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people;
  3. Mediation to be facilitated by an envoy of ASEAN’s chair with the assistance of the secretary-general;
  4. Humanitarian assistance provided by ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA) and
  5. A visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to meet all parties concerned.

It has been over a month, all the consensus seemed to not be put into practice. Moreover, they neither had any clear timeframes for starting nor any concrete works. Up to now, no action plans have been emerged by the consensus-designated organization like the AHA who has duties on humanitarian aid in the region. In addition, after attending the meeting and going back to Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing himself gave an interview to the media as if he was not ready to welcome the special envoy of ASEAN until the country becomes peaceful. While ASEAN itself has yet to agree on who to be its delegation which must also be endorsed by the Myanmar Army or the military junta.

However, some proactive efforts were seen on the part of international organization as Katsunori Koike, the UNHCR’s protection officer, met with Sitthichai Jindaluang, Mae Hong Son governor and chairman of the Mae Hong Son’s Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center, on May 6 to coordinate the preparation and management of the refugees in the government reception points or temporary shelters. The meeting was also joined by the commanding officer of the 7th Infantry Regiment Special Unit and Permanent Secretary of Mae Hong Son province in order to take care of security; primary health care; foods and medications. The governor of Mae Hong Son has provided the temporary shelters for more than 3,000 of this 2nd wave refugees after the massive air strikes around Dagwin base opposite Tha Ta Fang village.      

Then on May 14, Mrs. Christine Schraner Burgener, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Myanmar, met with H.E. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, talking about the political conflict situation in Myanmar and discussing the humanitarian aid for the refugees. Prime Minister Prayut said that Thailand has continuously been doing every possible ways to help improving the situation in Myanmar as well as to provide humanitarian assistance for the displaced persons through the cooperation with relevant agencies. He also insisted that there will be no refugee pushbacks to Myanmar if they have to face with danger and the refugee centers have already been set up along the border.

3 days after the visit of the UN’s Special Envoy, Mae Hong Son governor, Sitthichai Jindaluang, issued a provincial order setting up a “Working Group for Coordinating the Myanmar Refugees Assistance of Mae Hong Son province” in order to help and take care of the refugees in Mae Hong Son areas according to humanitarian principles with the Permanent Secretary of Mae Hong Son as the head. The working group consisted of security agencies such as the 7th Infantry Regiment Special Unit, the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment; the administrative or interior departments; public health agencies; international organizations like UNHCR and 16 local CSOs who have always been monitoring the situation and helping the refugees. It seemed to be more progressive as many parties took part and jointly set the direction. There have not been so far any obvious actions coming out of this working group because the operations of the security forces in the areas were rather contrary to what has been developed as a policy even in the provincial level.        

Moving forward to together solve problems, work or fail? 

Despite the establishment of the provincial working group by Mae Hong Son governor on May 17 composing of more progressive elements than in the past, namely the local CSOs as well as the international organizations like UNHCR, several humanitarian channels were still blocked. 5 checkpoints for border trade were closed through the order of the Mae Hong Son’s Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center, they have not yet been opened to easily transport the donated items to the refugees. And only 2 days after that, on May 19, the security officials still entered the temporary shelters where staying the refugees in order to make an “understanding” with the refugees who crossed from Mae Nu Hta and Mae Ra Hta to return to Karen State within May 24 before the first meeting of the provincial working group. This was a very incorrect and inappropriate operation, such action of the security personnel reflected great inconsistency and conflict of the coordination and cooperation between policy level and local level.

The People of the Salween River Basin Network later issued a statement urging the government not to push the refugees back without voluntary. The Thai Prime Minister then had to order the opening of humanitarian aid channels and the transferring of humanitarian assistance missions from the security forces to the administrative agencies and civil society, including the UNHCR, he also proposed to escalate the working group to national level comprising of multiple parties to address humanitarian issues. No further action has been taken so far and the situation seems to be an endless loop and go back in time. Thailand’s resources in border managing as well as its knowledge in assisting displaced people in refugee camps however have not been applied. Thailand that has more than 2,400 kilometer-long border shared with Myanmar should bring the existing knowledge and capacities in operating 9 temporary shelters into effect as well as should adopt humanitarian principles as the core actions before security.

Significant chronology

March 20, Mae Sam Laep villagers found 700 sacks of rice piled on the bank of the Salween River, Mae Sam Laep village, Sop Moei district, Mae Hong Son province. 

March 21, the KNLA 5th Brigade issued a statement objecting a delivery of 700 sacks of rice and supplies from Thailand, at Mae Sam Laep village, to the Myanmar Army’s base.

March 27, the day to celebrate the establishment of the Myanmar Armed Forces or Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Army launched its air strikes in Karen State.

March 28, a massive wave of refugees, thousands of people, from Karen State crossed the Salween River into Thailand.

March 29-31, negotiations or seeking for understanding (push-backs) were applied by the Thai security forces so that the refugees would return to Karen State.

April 1, the Myanmar’s military junta announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire.

5 checkpoints for border trade have been opened as ordered by Mae Hong Son governor after a long closure since November 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

April 5, the Thai security forces began to allow the transport of goods by boat to the refugees at Ei Tu Hta camp requiring that all donations must have been done through Mae Hong Son’s Red Cross office and Red Cross District Branch of Mae Sariang; Khun Yuam or Pai and delivered by military personnel.

April 7-8, 4 trucks in the afternoon and 2 in the evening containing donated things from Bangkok and surrounding provinces arrived at Mae Sam Laep village and it was found that the donated items could not be brought to the refugees.   

April 17, 20 and 22, Myanmar soldiers at Dagwin base opposite Tha Ta Fang village have intercepted the cargo boat containing donated items of Mae Sam Laep villagers for checking and it was reported on April 22 that a boat with Thai flag carrying 4 Thai soldiers was shot by Myanmar soldiers.

April 22, the last group of the first round refugees who crossed the Salween River to Thailand returned home, almost no refugees left on the Thai side.  

April 24, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as military junta leader was invited to join a Special ASEAN Summit on Myanmar in Jakarta, Indonesia. The summit came up with 5 consensus, one of them was that ASEAN will provide humanitarian assistance through ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA).

April 27, the KNLA 5th Brigade launched in the morning an operation to seize the Myanmar’s Thaw Lae Hta outpost, more than 450 Thai people in Mae Sam Laep village had to evacuate to the inland areas hiding in their relatives’ houses and most of them went to stay at Huay Kong Kad school where found the soldiers and public health officers.

April 28, more than 3,000 refugees from Karen State crossed the Salween River to Thailand.

May 14, Christine Schraner Burgener, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Myanmar, met with H.E. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, talking about the political conflict situation in Myanmar and discussing the humanitarian aid for the refugees.

May 17, Mae Hong Son governor ordered a set-up of Mae Hong Son provincial working group to monitor and help the refugees from Myanmar.

May 19, the security officials entered the reception points and temporary shelters to negotiate with the refugees to go back to Karen State within May 24. 

May 27, the Mae Hong Son’s Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center reported that there were still 1,039 Myanmar refugees in total staying in the shelters on the Thai side while a total of 221 Thai people staying in civilian collection points.

….

References

Karen Peace Support Network, “Terror From The Skies” : Coup Regime’s Escalated Offensives Cause Mass Displacement Across Mutraw, May, 2021.

The Reporters

Transborder News

Friends Without Borders Foundation

Friends Against Dictatorship (FAD)

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