For the first time in 20 years, Myanmar regime fighter jets dropped bombs on territory partly controlled by the KNU, an armed group that has been fighting the central government for seven decades and bears the name of a large ethnic minority, the Karen.
MAE SAM LAEP — Seen from the Thai side of the Salouen River, the Burmese army's outpost does not look like much: on the top of a bare hilltop, several shabby bunkers, plank walls and zinc roofs are lined up. There's no living soul, apparently, except for the crowing of a rooster whose stubborn cackle intermittently reaches the other bank. A little higher up, balancing on the void stands the silhouette of a building that looks like a Buddhist pagoda. Strangely enough, a red flag is flying there. The Thai police say that it is a sign of war for their Burmese neighbors.
This isolated outpost is not just a godforsaken hole stunned by the April heat, locked in the torpor of a foggy afternoon awaiting the monsoon rains. It is instead a military barracks of the Tatmadaw (official armed forces of Myanmar), the same forces whose soldiers have in just two months massacred more than half a thousand demonstrators opposing the Feb. 1 military coup.
The conflict is never far away. Under the cover of a sky still veiled by the smoke of the agricultural fires that mark the end of the dry season, the small border town of Mae Sam Laep, which faces the Burmese barracks, is recovering from recent events.
"There is no one left, all the refugees have been chased away."
Last week, for the first time in 20 years, regime fighter jets dropped bombs not far from here, on the other side of the river. In this region of incessant warfare, the territory is partly controlled by one of Myanmar's oldest guerrilla groups, the Karen National Union (KNU). This armed group, which has been battling the central government for seven decades, is named after a large ethnic minority, the Karen, who number seven million throughout Myanmar out of a population of about 56 million.
The airstrike came just a few hours after an attack by the KNU, on March 27, against a Tatmadaw strong point a little further north of Mae Sam Laep. Ten Burmese soldiers were killed, including a lieutenant colonel. This was followed by four days of consecutive bombardments— from March 27 to 30 — that both KNU and local NGO sources claim left around 20 people dead and forced some 10,000 to flee into the surrounding jungles.
The interminable war had been put on hold a few years ago following a ceasefire agreement signed in 2015 by a dozen ethnic guerrillas, including the KNU. But the rekindled flames of conflict have shaken these far-flung corners of the Thai kingdom. Nearly 3,000 Karen have fled to the Thai side of the border river. But most of them were quickly "summoned" by military force and forced to return home by men in black uniforms, members of Thai "rangers' regiments.
"There is no one left, all the refugees have been chased away," says a Karen activist based in Mae Sam Laep, where the army is blocking the road to the forests where several hundred of the fugitives had settled.
This "crisscrossing" of displaced populations has sparked controversy in Thailand. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has assured that "human rights will be respected." A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that his country's policy does not include "sending people home from the fighting in Myanmar." The reality, however, is quite different, according to activists and members of Karen advocacy groups.
"When I arrived by boat and we tried to land on the Thai shore, rangers rushed in, swatting us away," says Saw Eh Moh, a KNU local "government" official who was injured during the first shelling. He and a few others, whose health condition warranted surgery, were nevertheless allowed to be hospitalized in clinics in Mae Hong Son province, where the large border town of Mae Sam Laep is located.
Protesters are burning tires to block the sights of the police during the demonstration against the junta in Yangon — Photo: Thuya Zaw/ZUMA Wire
Doh Nay Saw, 15 years old, is also one of the "lucky ones' who have been treated in Thailand. When we met him on April 4, in a village near the Salouen River, he had just come out of a provincial hospital. Doh is a shy young man, visibly shaken: "On March 27, I was at home with two of my cousins when we heard the first sounds of bombs," he says, head down, eyes fixed on his shoes.
This first strike targeted the small Karen town of Day Pu Noh, the headquarters of the KNU's "5th Brigade," where his father is a combatant. "A neighbor ran to our house shouting "the Burmese are bombing us' and then he was hit by the bomb blast. I saw his body catch fire, disintegrate, he died before my eyes."
Doh received a piece of shrapnel in his thigh. Since his operation, he keeps this fragment of metal, stained with his blood, as a souvenir carefully preserved in a small plastic case. The young man gets into a car that drives him to the river. There is no question of staying in Thailand, even if he had intended to.
For the Thai government, which had announced a few weeks ago that it was preparing for an "influx of refugees," this prospect brings back bad memories of the 1990s. At that time, the war was already raging between a preceding Burmese military junta and KNU fighters. Not to mention other battles that took place further north between soldiers of the same junta and other ethnic groups. Since then, some 100,000 refugees from Myanmar have continued to live in camps along the 2,416-kilometer border between the two countries.
The links between the current Thai government — headed by a former coup general — and the Myanmar regime are close. The man behind the Myanmar coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, called Prime Minister Prayuth the day after the strike to ask him, without irony, for advice on how to protect "democracy" in the country. In mid-March, a new controversy erupted, fueling suspicions of "collusion" between the two countries. A mysterious shipment of 700 bags of Thai rice, ostensibly intended to supply the Burmese barracks opposite Mae Sam Laep, had been deposited on the riverbank.
A Thai general says his country's army "does not supply Myanmar in any way"
"I remember that a truck arrived and people got out before carrying the bags of rice near the pier," says Lah Paw, a 40-year-old boatwoman. What happened next is intriguing, to say the least. A boat came to pick up several soldiers from the Burmese barracks, taking them back to the Thai shore where the pile of bags was covered with a tarpaulin to protect them from the rain. Lah Paw says that the next day, the Burmese soldiers were in their barracks when a villager approached the bags. The soldiers "fired a shot in the air" to scare the intruder away.
A few days later, a truck returned, carrying the rice to an unknown destination. The bizarre episode, which has remained unexplained to this day, ended with a Thai general saying that his country's army "does not supply Myanmar in any way" and that the Burmese "have not asked us' to do so, "for reasons of their honor as soldiers."
The argument does not seem to convince many people in Mae Sam Laep. This predominantly Karen village is inhabited by many refugees who have fled to this side of the border because of successive conflicts. Lah Paw, who has lived here for 30 years, is one of them: "I fled with my parents to escape the war when I was a child. I never went back to Myanmar," she says, pointing to the other side, a few hundred meters away.
The other bank is so close that, in this late afternoon, some activity is visible in the Burmese barracks. Two men go down the path leading to the river. They carry yellow jerry cans that they fill with water from the Salouen. A black dog follows them. It is said that they cannot receive supplies, surrounded as they are by Karen guerrilla fighters since the cease-fire broke down. In the drowsiness of impossible confines, the "honor of the soldier" must be paid at the price of eternal boredom.