A fresh outbreak of heavy fighting in eastern Burma has caused more than a thousand refugees to cross back and forth over the border with Thailand, barely three weeks after a mass exodus left 20,000 displaced.
The latest flare-up comes after weeks of low-intensity conflict between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), whose decision not to become a Border Guard Force has angered the ruling junta.
Gunfire was heard on Saturday in Hpalu village, close to the border town of Myawaddy, which was the epicentre of the eruption earlier this month. Several artillery shells landed close to Hpalu, injuring at least one villager, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) reported.
The majority of the 1,000 who initially fled returned earlier today, but roughly 10 minutes after the last boatload arrived on the Burmese side of the Moei river separating the two countries, mortars started again. Numbers of people have since crossed back to Thailand now.
Major Saw Kyaw Thet, a strategic commander in the DKBA, said that Burmese troops had attacked their Hpalu outpost in an effort to clear an escape corridor for troops trapped in Wawlay, where the DKBA had its headquarters.
One Burmese solider was killed and seven injured. When asked if he saw the dead and wounded, Saw Kyaw Thet replied: “Of course. They are very near to us.”
The refugees are sheltering just south of Thailand’s western border town of Mae Sot, which lies across the Moei river from Myawaddy. Mae Sot hosted up to 17,000 thousand Karen earlier this month after similar fighting turned Myawaddy into a war zone.
Matt Finch, from the KHRG, said that Hpalu villagers had told the group they were warned by the DKBA on Thursday last week that heavy fighting may recommence, and began crossing over then.
Burmese troops around Wawlay, which until its capture by junta forces on 10 November had been a key stronghold of the DKBA, have been restricting the movement of locals in recent weeks, and had now altogether barred them from leaving to the area, Finch said.
He said locals had also been monitored and arrested by the Burmese army, while troops had broken into houses to check whether civilians were holding supplies for the DKBA or allied armed groups, such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
“It’s important to note that these aren’t isolated clashes, but that the conflict has been ongoing,” he warned, adding that it was imperative on Thai authorities to give the refugees a safe haven after reports emerged that there had been confusion over whether they were allowed to stay in Thailand.
Additional reporting by Francis Wade