Intense fighting between Myanmar’s military and a joint force of anti-junta fighters in territory controlled by the Karen ethnic group has forced all the 3,000 residents of Lay Kay Kaw township to flee, adding to an already precarious situation for thousands of refugees in the region.
Residents told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the military engaged with a combined group of pro-democracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) militiamen and fighters with the Karen National Liberation Army — the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) political group — on Wednesday, firing artillery at locations in Lay Kay Kaw’s No. 6 Ward, Rathe Gu village and Lay Kay Kaw Waterfall.
The fighting began after government troops entered the area at least six times on Dec. 14, capturing more than 20 political activists, including a member of Parliament for the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) Party. The clashes continued into Thursday near the village of Mae Htaw Thalay in Kayin’s Myawaddy township, forcing nearly all of nearby Lay Kay Kaw’s residents to leave the area, KNU town officials said.
KNU township mayor Htee Hpatayar said fighting began yesterday at about 10:00 a.m. and broke out again around 5:00 p.m.
“All those in the village have fled since the morning,” the mayor said. “And about 3,000 people from Lay Kay Kaw have also left the town for safety. There’s no one left now.”
Of those now on the run, about 2,500 people are taking shelter in Htee Mae War Khi village, east of Lay Kay Kaw, and about 500 in Falu village, to the town’s southeast, Htee Hpatayar said. The Karen National Union is providing food and shelter for the refugees, he said.
Sources told RFA that as the fighting continued on Thursday, villagers who live on the outskirts of Lay Kay Kaw have fled to neighboring Thailand on the other side of Moei river. The number of refugees is likely to increase, they said.
“As fighting broke out, most of the people fled to areas which are under the direct control of KNU,” said Naw Sae Sae, a member of the border-based Karen Women’s Organization.
“We also learned, just recently, that more than a thousand people crossed the border and fled into Thailand. For the time being, Thai authorities have allowed them to stay on Thai soil but are not allowing any outside food or donations.”
Junta Deputy Minister of Information Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA that troops had been conducting searches in Lay Kay Kaw following tips that members of the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), Parliament’s Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives, and the local PDF militia were taking refuge there.
Zaw Min Tun said troops had arrested two Hluttaw representatives — one from Kayin’s Myaungmya township and another from Irrawaddy region’s Ein Mae township — and others during the search and brought for interrogation.
“We have gained security in Lay Kay Kaw’s new town district,” he said. “We have arrested two members of the NUG and PDF groups, one MP from Myaungmya and another from Ein Mae. Yesterday, their forces attacked our camp, killing one soldier and wounding several others.”
KIC, a Kayin state-based media outlet, reported that a captain, a sergeant, a corporal and a private from the junta forces were killed during one of the clashes on Wednesday. Three others, including a lieutenant colonel and a captain, were injured.
RFA was not immediately able to confirm the number of casualties in the fighting.
A woman who fled Htee Mae War Khee village told RFA that the attacks were started by the military, which she said had been firing heavy weapons every five minutes or so on Thursday.
Refugees are not in immediate danger of running out of food, but they lack adequate shelter and are suffering from the effects of bad weather, she said.
“[The military is] now firing heavy weapons from the Mae Htaungthalay village school compound.,” she said.
“Some people fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs and are suffering from the cold. We are provided meals at the camp but the problem is that it is very cold and there are not enough blankets for everyone.”
Lay Kay Kaw mayor Htee Phatayar told RFA that the civilians are frightened by the fighting and expressed concern for their survival if a resolution is not achieved “peacefully and quickly.”
Lay Kay Kaw was built in February 2015 with the help of the Japan Nippon Foundation as a symbol of peace between the KNU and Myanmar’s nominally civilian government under then-President Thein Sein.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.