Thailand Sends Back Ethnic Karen People Fleeing Myanmar, Despite Airstrikes

Soldiers in Thailand began to send back people fleeing from Myanmar after airstrikes shook that country over the weekend, people familiar with the situation told the Associated Press on Monday.

Increasing violence has raised questions internationally about how countries might respond to the coup that ousted the pro-democracy government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ethnic Karen people are among those displaced by the violence that has increased in severity since the February 1 military takeover in Myanmar. On Saturday, more than 100 people were killed amid protests throughout the country, the highest daily death toll since the takeover.

According to the Minority Rights Group International, the Karen people comprise different ethnic groups of Tibetan-Central Asian origin. Twelve different languages are spoken among them, and while most are Buddhist, some identify as Christians because of conversion during the British rule of Myanmar.

Al Jazeera has estimated that there were 6 million Karen people in Myanmar in 2019.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Monday that Thailand does not want "mass migration" from Myanmar but that it will take human rights issues into consideration while preparing for an influx of people from the neighboring country.

Despite the prime minister's comments, three people told the AP that Thai soldiers were beginning to force people to return to Myanmar.

"They told them it was safe to go back even though it is not safe. They were afraid to go back, but they had no choice," a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network told the AP.

Al Jazeera reported that approximately 3,000 Karen people fled from the country's southeastern Mutraw district. The Karen people have been engaged in a decades-long struggle against the Myanmar military, believing they have a historical claim to the territory. Sporadic fighting has occurred between the Karen National Union, an armed political organization, and the military of Myanmar for over 70 years.

Myanmar protesters in Yangon face down military
Protesters wearing protective equipment sit on a makeshift barricade meant to deter security forces during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon's Hlaing Tharyar township in Myanmar on March 14. STR/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Two other people confirmed that refugees were being sent back to Myanmar. All three spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

A spokesman for Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, said claims that some Karen were being forced to return to Myanmar were "inaccurate."

"Those reports cite information solely from non-official sources without confirming the facts from official sources on the ground.... In fact, the Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground," Tanee Sangrat wrote in a statement.

In one border area, Thai soldiers refused to let journalists or curious locals approach or speak to those who had fled.

Myanmar aircraft carried out three strikes overnight Sunday, according to Dave Eubank, a member of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief agency that delivers medical and other assistance to villagers. The strikes severely injured one child but caused no apparent fatalities, he said.

Earlier strikes had sent about 2,500 people into northern Thailand's Mae Hong Son province and left at least four people dead and many wounded, according to the agency.

One witness described a "chaotic scene" as he watched hundreds of people cross the river border Sunday into Mae Hong Son.

"There were many children and women. It seemed like they had basic supplies to sustain themselves, but I don't know how long they can last without help," said La Rakpaoprai, who buys snacks and other goods in the mountainous border village of Mae Sakoep and sells them in remote areas.

Video shot Sunday showed a group of villagers, including many young children, resting in a forest clearing inside Myanmar after fleeing their homes. They carried their possessions in bundles and baskets. In addition to those who have fled to Thailand, an estimated 10,000 people are believed to be displaced inside Myanmar's northern Karen state, according to the Free Burma Rangers.

The bombings may have been in retaliation for a reported attack by the Karen National Liberation Army in which they claimed to have captured a Myanmar government military outpost on Saturday morning. The group is fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people.

According to Thoolei News, an online site that carries official information from the Karen National Union, eight government soldiers were captured and 10 were killed. The report said one Karen guerrilla died.

The government has battled the Karen fighters on and off for years—as it has with other ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy—but the airstrikes are a worrying development at a time when the junta is also violently suppressing anti-coup protests in cities across the country.

As of Sunday, at least 459 people have been killed since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The true toll is thought to be higher.

On Saturday alone, at least 114 people across the country were killed by security forces, including several children—a toll that prompted a U.N. human rights expert to accuse the junta of committing "mass murder" and criticize the international community for not doing enough to stop it.

President Joe Biden told reporters his administration is working on a response but offered no details. The United States has already levied new sanctions on the junta, as have other countries—but they have had little effect so far.

"It's terrible. It's absolutely outrageous. Based on the reporting I've gotten, an awful lot of people have been killed. Totally unnecessary," Biden said.

The U.N. Security Council is likely to hold closed consultations on the escalating situation in Myanmar, diplomats said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release the information ahead of an official announcement. The council has condemned the violence and called for a restoration of democracy, but has not yet considered possible sanctions against the military, which would require support or an abstention by Myanmar's neighbor and friend China.

Despite the violence by security forces, protests have continued, and many used funerals of those killed on Saturday to show their resistance to the coup.

In Yangon, the country's largest city, friends and family gathered Monday to say farewell to 49-year-old Mya Khaing, who was fatally shot on Saturday. As his coffin was moved toward the crematorium, mourners sang a defiant song from an earlier 1988 uprising against military rule.

"There is no pardon for you till the end of the world," the mourners sang. "We will never forgive what you have done."

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