Date: April 4, 2021
By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
A refugee camp packed with Karen refugees in Thailand.
BANGKOK, THAILAND (BosNewsLife)– Thailand has denied forcing back more than 2,000 mainly Christian refugees fleeing deadly airstrikes in neighboring Myanmar despite video footage suggesting many boarding boats under Thai soldiers’ watch.
Myanmar Army fighter planes launched airstrikes on a predominantly Christian Karen village Saturday, March 27 killing at least three and injuring eight, according to Christian aid workers. Footage seen by BosNewsLife showed a young girl among the thousands of Karen forced to flee from their homes by the military bombardment in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
There was a second bombing raid Sunday, March 28, against villages and a displacement camp in the Mutraw district of the Karen area in Myanmar, said Barnabas Fund, an aid group working in the area. It forced a further 3,000 to flee across the border into Thailand, Barnabas Fund added. Aid workers called the airstrikes “the most severe attacks” in Karen State for 20 years.
The violence results from ongoing tensions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since the army, also known as the Tatmadaw, seized power in a military coup in February, Barnabas Fund explained. “The Tatmadaw has for many years persecuted the Karen, among them a significant number of Christians, as well the majority-Christian Chin and Kachin, and majority-Muslim Rohingya peoples.”
The group recalled that on February 1, when the coup began, thousands of Karen villagers were forced to flee military bombardments. Earlier, “In March 2020, military jets killed 21 people in a raid on four Chin villages.”
However, those fleeing the raids are not welcome in Thailand, video footage suggested. According to activists familiar with the situation, thousands of people were forced to return to the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp on the Myanmar side of the border. A video shot by a Karen villager showed refugees boarding boats under the watch of Thai soldiers. “Look, Thai soldiers told villagers to go back. Here, see older people have to go back. Look there, there are lots of Thai soldiers,” a Karen villager was heard saying.
Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, denied that the refugees were pushed back. They were safely placed on the border’s fringes in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media claimed. “Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat added in published remarks. But at least one local official said it was government policy for the army to block them at the border and deny access to outside aid groups.
Reuters news agency quoted Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, saying: “All agencies should follow the National Security Council’s policy, which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border,” referring to the government’s security coordinating body.
“The military has the main responsibility in managing the situation on the ground. And we must not allow officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), NGOs, or other international organizations to have direct contact and communication. This is absolutely forbidden,” the chief added.
The Myanmar army claims it responded to Karen fighters attacking a military post following the February 1 coup. During the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were detained by the army. According to several sources, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters have since been killed, including some 100 over the weekend.