Myanmar’s war displaces new generation on remote river frontier

(Reuters)— Myanmar’s coup has brought war back to a remote Southeast Asian frontier after 25 years, sending a new generation of villagers in both Myanmar and Thailand running for their lives from bullets and bombs.

Ethnic Karen insurgents and the Myanmar army have engaged in heavy clashes near the Thai border in the weeks since the Feb. 1 coup, when Myanmar’s generals ousted an elected government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Karen and other autonomy-seeking ethnic minority forces based in frontier regions have supported the largely urban-based pro-democracy opponents of the junta, offering refuge to some, and tension with the military has boiled up into new fighting.

Before dawn on Tuesday, Karen fighters attacked the Myanmar army’s Thaw Leh Ta outpost on the west bank of the Salween River, which forms the border with Thailand as it cuts through steep, forested slopes on is way to the Bay of Bengal.

“I’ve never heard gunfire like this, I’ve never seen people needing to flee like this,” said Supart Nunongpan, 44, chief of the Thai village of Mae Sam Laep, a small river port of wooden houses and shops strung out along the Thai side of the Salween.

The Myanmar army had held Thaw Leh Ta since 1995, the last time there was major fighting in the area when, after years of dry-season offensives, the Myanmar army captured the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU) guerrilla group, not far to the south.

Divided and driven from most of its enclaves in eastern Myanmar, the KNU agreed to a ceasefire in 2012, ending an insurgency that began soon after Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Now war has resumed and the Myanmar military, equipped with more effective aircraft than it had 25 years ago, has launched repeated air strikes against KNU positions, sending some 15,000 villagers fleeing into the forest, with several thousand briefly seeking refuge on the Thai side of the border.

Myanmar launched air strikes on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, with fighter jets and helicopters, Thai authorities on the border said. There was no word on casualties.

About 100 villagers from Myanmar, most of them elderly, pregnant women or children, crossed to the Thai side on Wednesday to escape the air strikes, the Free Burma Rangers aid group said.