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Radio Free Asia

More than 700 Refugees of Fighting in Myanmar's Kayah State in Dire Need at Thai Border

2021-07-15 -- More than 700 refugees from Myanmar's embattled Kayah state are in dire need of assistance after fleeing fierce fighting between junta troops and a branch of the Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF) militia formed to protect them from military offensives, sources said Thursday.

Aid workers told RFA's Myanmar Service that more than 330 women and children are among the refugees who were forced to walk through the jungle for nearly a week to reach areas of the state along the border with Thailand that are under the control of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)—the political wing of the ethnic rebel Karenni Army (KA).

Mu Mu, one of the refugees, described the arduous journey, which she said was hampered by heavy rains that made it difficult to sleep and cook food over open fires.

"I often had to eat half-cooked rice and it was very hard walking on small mountain roads at nighttime," she said.

"At some points, I was so tired that I couldn't walk anymore, and I had to drag myself on all fours. I'm not so young anymore. Once, I was left behind in the valley and I had to cry out for help again and again."

Among those who fled to KNPP-controlled areas are villagers who left when clashes broke out between the military and the KNDF in Kayah's Demoso township on May 20.

According to the United Nations and aid groups, conflict in Myanmar's remote border regions has displaced an estimated 230,000 residents since the junta overthrew the country's democratically elected government in a Feb. 1 coup, including 100,000 from Demoso alone.

They join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armies who were already counted as internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.

Refugees in the KNPP-controlled areas told RFA they are currently living in makeshift tents in the jungle and dealing with a serious water shortage.

"I have to go very far to fetch water," said Phray Mei, adding that she regularly walks to a spring about a mile from the camp.

KNPP Home Minister U Daniel told RFA that his party hadn't invited the refugees into its territory but would do its best to assist them and any others who fear persecution from the junta.

"These people were fleeing military attacks and they came on their own," he said. "Most of them are rural villagers who dared not live there or people who had arrest warrants [for anti-junta activities]."

U Daniel said that the KNPP did not anticipate the arrival of the refugees and is working to secure shelter and food for them.

"We gave them tarpaulins to protect against the rain and some food, but we still need a lot of things," he said.

"Also, we have nothing much to provide them in terms of health care. We will need to consider how we can do that, as well as providing them with education over the long term."

'It hasn't been easy for anyone'

Myanmar's military says its takeover was warranted because former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November 2020 general elections as the result of voter fraud. The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and violently responded to widespread protests, killing 912 people and arresting nearly 5,270, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Amid the nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country of 54 million that have led to fierce battles with several local militias.

Khin Than Nu, a former NLD lawmaker who won her race in last year's election for Kayah's Amyotha Hluttaw No. 6 Constituency and is now hunkered down at the refugee camp near the Thai border, said her journey had been tiring, but helped her to appreciate the sacrifices made by the KNDF.

"I feel very proud of the young people who are fighting the military on the front lines," she said.

"We haven't shed blood like those young martyrs, but we refugees are here because we could not stay in our homes and there was nowhere else to go. It hasn't been easy for anyone."

Khin Than Nu said the needs of the 700 refugees near the border are being communicated to Myanmar's shadow National Unity Government (NUG).

They join nearly 10,000 U.N.-recognized refugees who remain unable to return home from the Thai-Karenni border after fleeing since fleeing fighting during Myanmar's 70-year civil war.

Reported by Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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