Fresh Clashes in Myanmar’s Kayah State Kill Two as Displaced Surpass 100,000

The fighting comes as the military’s power grab has left a nationwide ceasefire more strained than ever.
2021-06-01
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Fresh Clashes in Myanmar’s Kayah State Kill Two as Displaced Surpass 100,000 Military troops and police go on patrol at Kayah state, Myanmar, May 23, 2021.
AP Photo

Fresh clashes between the military and a local militia in Myanmar’s Kayah state have left at least two dead and half a dozen wounded, prompting yet another wave of refugees, sources said, as aid workers clocked the number of displaced people in the region at 100,000 since fighting broke out a week ago.

Four months after the military seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected government in a Feb. 1 coup, angry residents in Kayah state organized into the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF).

Fighting between the KPDF and the junta’s security forces began on May 22 in Demoso, when the KPDF killed three police officers and occupied security posts in the region.

Since then, Kayah state has recorded nearly daily clashes and, on Monday, the KPDF other PDF groups from around the region joined forces as the Karenni National Defense Army (KNDF) to coordinate a campaign against the military.

A member of the KPDF, who spoke to RFA’s Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said a fellow militia member and a civilian were killed in the latest round of fighting on Monday, and that at least six people were wounded.

“We [now] have KNDF forces stationed in Demoso,” the source said.

“It started just after 1:00 a.m. … and it didn’t stop until about 6:00 p.m. On our side, one KNDF member and a villager who came along with us were killed and two others were wounded. Six in total are wounded,” he added.

“We just have to defend ourselves with whatever small weapons we have.”

A statement issued by the KPDF on Monday claimed that the military had used jet fighters to bomb the area prior to the shelling “because they have lost up to 80 people in clashes with the resistance so far” and were seeking to limit casualties.

Gen. Zaw Min Tun, Deputy Information Minister for the military junta, could not be reached for comment on the reports of fighting in Kayah state.

Speaking to RFA on Monday, a resident of the Kayah state capital Loikaw said the military had fired “eight to 10 rockets and mortars” into the Demoso area from a position in the nearby mountains. The source, who also declined to provide their name, confirmed that the shelling took place following a military bombing run.

“Demoso is just a small town and they shelled us every few minutes,” the resident said.

“Most people have fled and only a handful remain. It’s not easy to get food and what is worse is we have very little drinking water in the surrounding jungle. It's hard. We have health problems and it’s very difficult for the children.”

Civilian toll from fighting

According to the KNDF, a total of 31 “civilians” have been killed in the two-and-a-half months between March 19 and May 31, although the group did not specify whether that number included militia members.

The KDNF and aid workers now estimate that clashes between the military and local militias have prompted some 100,000 people to flee the Demoso and Loikaw areas in May alone.

“From Kwai Ngan village to Lego village, they are living in small tents [in makeshift camps in the jungle]. There are hundreds of people with dysentery and diarrhea in the jungle to the south. Two of our medics have been sent there,” one aid worker told RFA.

“Now there are about 100,000 people who have fled the Demoso and Loikaw areas. There are still many coming.”

The aid worker said there is a shortage of drinking water in the camps and that only around three days’ supply of medicine and food remain.

Amid the difficulties aid workers face in providing necessities to those displaced by the fighting, the military has shut down the main routes into Kayah state as part of a bid to cut off supplies to the region’s militia groups, sources said, only recently reopening the Taungoo-Kayah road from nearby Bago region under tight security.

Meanwhile, sources told RFA, the military has stepped up its offensive in the state, with reports that its No. 427 and 102 artillery units from Loikaw on Monday fired more than 40 shells south of Kyauk Swei Hill between the area’s Dawt Ngan Khar and Kone Thar villages.

Ceasefire, peace talks tenuous under junta

As tensions ratchet up in Kayah state, the 10 rebel groups that signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with two of Myanmar’s civilian governments beginning in 2015 suggested Tuesday that the deal remains in place, despite an already flailing peace process that was all but destroyed by the unpopular junta’s coup in February.

However, representatives from the 10 ethnic armies stressed that while they hope to honor the NCA, which was inked in the presence of international observers and Myanmar’s highest legislature, they will not pursue peace talks with the military, which they view as having stolen power from the country’s democratically elected government.

Khun Myint Tun, vice-chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), called the coup “a complete violation of the NCA” that had directly led to the suspension of talks by the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST), comprised of the leaders of the 10 NCA signatories.

“As PPST peace leaders … we strongly oppose the use of force by the military council to resolve political issues,” he said, referring to the State Administrative Council (SAC), the junta’s formal name.

“The reason we are objecting is that the essence of the NCA is to resolve political issues peacefully without resorting to force.”

While talks with the military are on hold, the members of the PPST are holding discussions over whether the NCA should remain in effect. The PNLO and Karen National Union (KNU) have voiced support for the agreement, saying it is the best way to ensure peace and a basis for further talks. However, some groups have given safe haven to protesters and have been courted by the National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel government formed by ousted civilian leaders.

The military appears to consider the NCA to be set in stone, unilaterally issuing an announcement on May 30 that the ceasefire had been extended for a month and calling on signatories to continue peace talks. Official talks at the national level were suspended in 2018, but have continued informally and with little progress.

‘The junta is our enemy’

Pado Saw Taw Ni, the KNU’s head of foreign affairs, told RFA the military had “dumped the NCA into a ditch” when it orchestrated February’s power grab, although he acknowledged that his organization intends to pursue the peace process.

“It’s despicable—we cannot accept the coup at all,” he said, comparing the military’s actions to those of imperial Japan when it occupied Myanmar during World War II.

“Regarding the NCA, it is still legitimate in the peace process. It was signed in front of the international community and was ratified by parliament … But since the coup, we cannot face each other. The junta is our enemy.”

Salai Lian Hmung Sakhon, who signed the NCA as a leader of the Chin National Front (CNF) and is currently the Federal Minister for National Unity for the NUG, said that since the military seized power, “both the NCA and the … constitution have collapsed.”

He likened continuing talks in accordance with NCA principles to “reviving the dead” and called for “a brand new federal democratic constitution … to guarantee the future of the Union, freedom and equality for the people.”

Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the military’s Deputy Minister of Information, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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

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