Burmese Karen Refugees Say They Are Being Refused by Thailand Despite Public Welcome

Thai authorities continued to deny national entry to thousands of ethnic Karen people—members of a minority group residing primarily in southern and southeastern Myanmar—after they attempted to seek shelter across the border amid ongoing military airstrikes.

Violence has riddled Myanmar since military forces overtook the nation's elected government officials during a February coup, and air attacks this week forced large portions of the population to flee.

A majority of Karen refugees pursuing safety in Thailand were turned away upon arrival, with 2,000 redirected back to their original residences in Myanmar, according to the Karen National Union.

"The KNU strongly condemns the Burmese military who sent airstrikes targeting villages and a school in our Karen area. Villagers, including under aged children, have been killed by air strikes on the 27, 28, and 29th March 2021. Many are injured," the union wrote in a statement posted to Twitter on Monday. "As a result there are around 10,000 newly displaced IDP's [International Displaced Persons]."

"A further 3,000 people fled across the border to avoid attacks. However, more than 2,000 were forced back by Thai authorities," the statement continued. "The villagers don't dare to return to their homes because of the threat of airstrikes. This inhuman and excessive use of military power used on innocent civilians is totally unacceptable."

Myanmar, Karen, Airstrikes
Thai authorities have denied thousands of Karen refugees seeking shelter across the border amid military airstrikes in Myanmar this week. In the photo, villagers bathe on the Thai side of the Salween River in Mae Hong Son province on March 31, 2021, across from where Myanmar refugees earlier attempted to cross the Thai-Myanmar border after military bombings in Karen state. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Thailand's prime minister denied that his country's security forces had forced villagers back to Myanmar who had fled from military airstrikes over the weekend, saying they returned home on their own accord.

But the situation in eastern Myanmar appeared to be getting more, not less, dangerous.

Saw Taw Nee, head of the foreign affairs department of the Karen National Union, the main political body representing the Karen minority there, confirmed that new raids Tuesday left six civilians dead and 11 wounded.

Dave Eubank, a member of the Free Burma Rangers, which provides medical assistance to villagers in the region, provided the same information.

The attacks by Myanmar's military led the KNU to issue a statement from one of its armed units saying that the government's "military ground troops are advancing into our territories from all fronts," and vowing to respond.

"We have no other options left but to confront these serious threats posed by the illegitimate military junta's army in order to defend our territory, our Karen peoples, and their self-determination rights," said the statement, issued in the name of the KNU office for the district that was first attacked on Saturday.

It said the attacks were the latest in a series of actions by Myanmar's military breaking a cease-fire agreement. The KNU has been fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking before the latest air attacks, said his country is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting, as it has done many times for decades. His comments came a day after humanitarian groups said Thailand has been sending back some of the thousands of people who have fled the air attacks by Myanmar's military.

"There is no influx of refugees yet. We asked those who crossed to Thailand if they have any problem in their area. When they say no problem, we just asked them to return to their land first. We asked, we did not use any force," Prayuth told reporters.

"We won't push them back," he said. "If they are having fighting, how can we do so? But if they don't have any fighting at the moment, can they go back first?"

The governor of Thailand's Mae Hong Son province, where as many as 3,000 refugees had sought shelter, said later that those still on Thai soil were expected to return to their own country in a day or two.