4,200 Burmese flee to Thailand, escape fighting

Thai soldiers receive Burmese villagers arriving in Mae Sot, Tak province, northern Thailand, earlier this month after fleeing clashes between Burmese troops and an ethnic Karen rebel group. (AP/Thailand Ministry of Defense)

BANGKOK -- Fighting between Burmese government forces and ethnic guerrillas has sent about 4,200 villagers fleeing across the border into Thailand over the past week, a Thai army officer said Wednesday.

That number includes more than 2,500 who fled into Thailand on Friday from territory held by the ethnic Karen minority. A similar wave took place in April, when several thousand villagers from Burma's eastern state of Karen fled after airstrikes by the Burmese government.

In the past, the villagers were allowed to stay in Thailand for a few days after such incidents and then were returned to Burma.

The Karen are one of several ethnic minorities that have been battling for decades for greater autonomy from Burma's central government. Fighting between the two sides is intermittent, but increased after the military seized power in February from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thai Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich said a total of 4,216 villagers crossed the Moei River into Thailand from Dec. 16 to Dec. 21 because of the skirmishes. Of that number, 861 have returned and 3,355 are being sheltered in Mae Sot district in the western border province of Tak, he said.

The Moei River marks the border between the two countries.

The area where they are sheltered has been sealed as a precaution against the spread of covid-19, and all those who fled are being tested for the virus, he said.

The Thai army has warned Burma, which officially calls itself Myanmar, that it will retaliate if stray artillery shells land on Thai soil.

Fighting on the Burmese side of the river abated during the rainy season, but with the rains now mostly over, it is expected to resume in Karen territory as well as in areas controlled by other ethnic rebel groups.

The most recent clashes were triggered by a raid last week by government soldiers on the town of Lay Kay Kaw, which is in territory under the unofficial control of the Karen National Union, or KNU, the civil authority for the area.

Independent Burmese media reported that government troops seized 30-60 people associated with the organized opposition to the military government, including at least one elected lawmaker from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. The KNU has allowed opponents of the military-installed government to take refuge in its territory.

The Karen, along with other ethnic minority groups, have a loose alliance with the army's foes, who have established an alternative administration, the National Unity Government, and its armed wing, the People's Defense Force, which is a conglomeration of lightly armed local self-defense groups.