Thousands Flee Myanmar Amid Heavy Fighting Around Shwe Kokko

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Thousands Flee Myanmar Amid Heavy Fighting Around Shwe Kokko

Casino targeted as displaced civilians find sanctuary in Thailand.

Thousands Flee Myanmar Amid Heavy Fighting Around Shwe Kokko
Credit: Depositphotos

More than 10,000 civilians fled across the Thai border, mostly into Mae Sot, as a Myanmar military-backed Border Guard Force (BGF) clashed with opposition militias around Shwe Kokko in the country’s southeast over the weekend.

Sources and reports said the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) initiated attacks on BGF posts near the casino in Shwe Kokko and the town of Myawaddy in Karen state last Wednesday, alongside the anti-junta People’s Defense Forces (PDFs).

The fighting had escalated by Friday and continued over the weekend as the PDF, the armed wing of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), and KNLA battled the BGF and the military with heavy artillery, mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades at close quarters.

One source said the BGF had attempted to stop civilians fleeing into Thailand’s Tak province and had tried to use used them as human shields.

About 9,000 people made it across the border into Mae Sot, about 490 kilometers northwest of Bangkok, where they were treated for heat exhaustion by Free Burma Rangers.

Other border crossings were also used and there were unconfirmed reports that Thai authorities had attempted to send resistance fighters, who had also crossed the border, back into Myanmar.

Shwe Kokko – occasionally referred to as a “special economic zone” – must rank among the most troubled areas in Southeast Asia. Much of the fighting over recent months has occurred there amid attacks by jet fighters deployed by the Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw.

On March 11, 29 civilians, including three monks, were massacred at Nam Nein Village, according to the NUG and independent sources, prompting calls for the International Criminal Court to expand its war crimes investigations in Myanmar.

Human traffickers have also taken advantage of the conflict, setting up slave compounds with impunity. According to Unbound Now, one compound was suspected of holding up to 10,000 people who have been forced to run online scam rackets.

Many of those rackets have been blamed on Chinese criminal syndicates and sources near the Thai side of the border said Chinese were among those fleeing into Thailand and “were catching taxis to Bangkok.” By Monday morning they said the situation had calmed.

“It is a lot quieter today,” one Thai source living in Tak said. “That’s probably due to the traditional new year celebrations which are about to start on both sides of the border.”

One resistance group fighting alongside the KNLA and the PDF, the Lion Battalion Commando Special Force, issued a statement saying 85 junta and BGF soldiers were killed and 60 injured in the fighting. Tatmadaw has not responded.

More than 3,200 people have been killed amid the brutal crackdown that followed the February 2021 coup d’état, which ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Another 1.4 million people have been internally displaced and a further 17,000 people remain in detention.

On the political front, Indonesia, this year’s chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), signaled some success in getting humanitarian aid into Myanmar, which is an improvement on efforts made by previous chairs.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she had reopened talks with “all stakeholders” in the conflict, telling a press conference in Jakarta that “Indonesia will maintain efforts to build trust and act as a bridge to eliminate differences between all parties involved.”

She did not name the stakeholders but added that the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management “can distribute humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and political orientation.”

The message from Naypyidaw, however, appears unchanged. On Friday, Hkalam Samson, a Baptist minister and human rights activist, was sentenced to six years in prison.

Human Rights Watch has described his convictions for terrorism and incitement as politically motivated, adding that the jailing of Samson, “who is internationally renowned for his humanitarian and community work, shows that no one is safe in Myanmar.”