Ethnic groups in Myanmar’s Kayin State and elsewhere are reportedly still experiencing waves of attacks from the country’s military, the Tatmadaw, after the February coup, despite the junta’s declaration of a one-month cease-fire on March 31.
The armed forces have aggressively cracked down on pro-democracy protesters nationwide since the coup, leaving thousands detained and hundreds dead.
Although the current nationwide crackdown in Myanmar is the biggest seen in years, ethnic conflict in the Southeast Asian nation is not new. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is home to the world’s longest ongoing civil war, spanning 70 years with a series of ethnic insurgencies.
David Eubank, head of the Thai-based Free Burma Rangers, a group that has provided medical assistance inside Myanmar, told VOA this week that daily military attacks against several ethnic minority states continue.
Eubank said by phone the Tatmadaw has stepped up assaults that have led to the displacement of thousands of members of ethnic minorities in recent weeks, starting with airstrikes from March 27 to April 2 in Kayin State, also known as Karen State.
“From all these airstrikes, as well as sustained ground attacks, there are now 23,000 people displaced in northern Karen State," Eubank told VOA.
Saw Thuebee, spokesperson for the civil society group, the Karen Peace Support Network, told VOA that 30,000 people had been displaced in Kayin state by increasing fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Liberation Army, the military arm of Karen National Union, the political organization that claims to represent the ethnic Karens.
He said, the Tatmadaw presence in the region has been increasing, particularly since the coup.
“The Karen has made a repeated request to the Tatmadaw in the last five years to remove their military camps in the Karen territories. But instead of removing the camps the, the Tatmadaw has increased more, more troops and upgrading their outposts, and building more bigger roads so they can move in as fast as possible even during military tensions. I think Karen is responding to this militarization of this Myanmar army, this is why we are seeing more fighting going on and it's spreading out to other districts as well,” Saw Thuebee told VOA.
Non-Burman ethnic groups in Kayin State have had a long history of running conflict with the central government over issues related to autonomy or independence. As is the case with other ethnic groups in the country, ceasefire agreements have been agreed to over the years in attempts for peace.
Eubank, of the Free Burma Rangers said previous truces have often been broken but not to the extent of the current attacks. “The Burma army said there’s a cease-fire, there is no cease-fire there,” he told VOA.
“There has been a cease-fire in Karen State for five years. And every year there has been a violation,” according to Eubank, who says the military moved in on some states before February’s coup.
“We saw more and more attacks in December and then January they kept increasing, steadily, slowly,” he added.
Thousands nationwide have opposed the coup, both in urban and ethnic areas. But the military’s armored vehicles and live ammunition have suppressed regular street demonstrations and martial law and internet shutdowns have been imposed.
Reports in recent days have indicated that airstrikes have temporarily stopped in ethnic regions, but constant flyovers are still a daily occurrence, according to Eubank’s group. Ground attacks are also increasing, and according to Eubank, his FBR team reported a 30% increase in attacks on ethnic minority areas such as Kachin State, while thousands have also been displaced in Shan State.
Ethnic armed organizations are fighting back, Eubank said.
“In northern Karen State they are attacking with every chance they get,” Eubank said.
Yet with thousands still displaced, a lot of damage has already been done. Eubank told VOA his group’s biggest priority now is “food, medicine and shelter” as a food crisis could be imminent, coupled with the approach of the rainy season.
“People are now hiding among the trees, many of them in caves to escape bombing and living pretty rough. Schools stopped, fields can’t be tended, and people are scared,” he said.