Three young children, including an eight month-old baby, have died after a boat that refugees had used to flee escalating tension between the Burmese army and a proxy militia in Karen state last week crashed and capsized.
The baby died along with two four-year-olds on Thursday close to Karen state’s Kawkareit township. Around 40 people were on board, all from Ta-Eu-Hta village close to Burma’s eastern border with Thailand.
The threat of conflict between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which is allied to the government, has escalated in recent weeks after a DKBA faction refused to become a Border Guard Force (BGF).
A number of Karen have sought refuge either side of the Thai-Burma border, often in rudimentary shelters. A resident in Thailand’s Mawlichai village, across the border from where the accident happened, said that the river was “narrow, curvy…with a strong current”.
“The boatman lost control of the boat at one corner and it crashed into a rock. The children couldn’t swim so they drowned and their bodies couldn’t be recovered.”
Those who have made it across the border claim there are more refugees on their way, the Mawlichai villager said. The DKBA have traditionally supported the Burmese army in their conflict against the Karen National Union (KNU), but relations are now strained.
The commander of the DKBA’s Brigade 5, Saw La Bwe (or Na Kham Mwe), has rejected the Border Guard Force plan, which would see his troops assimilated into the Burmese army. A Brigade 5 official said that the government had threatened force against the DKBA officials who were resistant to the idea.
“[Saw La Bwe] is now not even picking up his phone and other communication devices as the government is calling him every day and even at night when he is sleeping to pressure him to sign [the BGF proposal].”
The estimated 1000-strong Brigade 5 territory stretches from Myawaddy border town to the Three Pagoda Pass, and Saw La Bwe is known to be one of the militia’s more moderate voices. It was rumoured last week that the Burmese government is moving artillery near to Brigade 5 territory in preparation for an attack.