More than 100,000 displaced by Myanmar conflict in two weeks

No one remains in the villages on the east bank of the Sittaung River in Myanmar’s Shwegyin township.

Over the past two weeks, junta troops have fired heavy artillery and shells at the 10 tracts in Bago region and threatened their residents, following clashes with ethnic Karen rebels, forcing around 1,500 people to flee to the township seat for safety. As many as 200 refugees are now sheltering in each of the town’s monasteries where they rely on donations for their daily needs.

An aid worker who, like others interviewed for this report, declined to provide his name due to security concerns, told RFA Burmese “there is no one left” in the east bank villages.

“We all are sheltering in the town in monasteries, rest houses and pagodas,” he said.

“Some of us are staying at our friends’ homes. Those staying with friends usually don’t get the donations that others do. Others are staying in refugee camps, so donors know their exact number and can provide help for all of them.”

The refugees in Bago join hundreds of thousands of others who have fled conflict throughout Myanmar since the military’s Feb. 1, 2021 coup, leaving the country mired in what international rights groups and aid organizations say is a humanitarian crisis.

According to the latest situation reports published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on March 4 and March 21, the number of war refugees in Myanmar increased by more than 100,000 throughout the country in the two weeks from Feb. 27 to March 13 alone.

The latest additions – most of whom live in Kachin, Kayah, and Shan states, as well as eastern Bago region – bring the number of those displaced by conflict in the country to more than 1.7 million people, UNOCHA said in a statement on Tuesday.

The ethnic Karen Peace Support Network said on Feb. 26 that more than 180,000 people have fled fighting in Bago’s Nyaung Lay Pin and Taungoo townships alone since the takeover.

In Kayin, Kayah and Mon states, in southeast Myanmar, nearly 410,000 people have been displaced by conflict over the same period, according to the UNOCHA, while another 943,000 have fled their homes in western Myanmar’s Sagaing and Magway regions and Chin state.

Banyar, the director of the ethnic Karenni Human Rights Group, told RFA that the number of war refugees in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayah state had ballooned by about 30,000 people over the past two weeks alone.

‘We have nothing left’

A woman who is among those displaced from Sagaing region told RFA that junta troops torched more than a quarter of the structures in her 1,000-home village of Tha Ma Yoe in Wetlet township on March 17, forcing around 4,000 residents to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

She said her two-story home was destroyed in the raid, as well as all of her rice and bean crops.

“We couldn’t take anything when we ran, as the junta soldiers raided our village from both the east and west side at the same time,” she said, adding that she “had to run for about 10 hours” before she and others were able to rest.

“It rained that day and we were soaked ... We had to stay under a tree. We have nothing left. We are mad at them for what they have done to us. We want to take up arms and fight back.”

Displaced people are seen in Bagon’s Shwegyin township, Myanmar, Mar. 12, 2023. Credit: Citizen journalistSimilarly, more than 8,000 residents of Wetlet’s Han Lin village – a U.N.-recognized World Heritage cultural site – were forced to flee during a military raid on Oct. 22, and most remain displaced five months later.

“We have had to stay in huts made of tarp in the jungle,” said one of the residents. “We’ve received more than 50 tarps [as donations], but there are more than 8,000 people here."

The resident said that around 40 junta soldiers remain stationed in Han Lin, making it impossible for people to return to their homes.

Those who are unable to flee the military’s raids often face a much worse fate.

Ko Phone, the administrator of Magway region’s Tilin township, told RFA that a joint force of military troops from the 77th Division and pro-junta armed groups killed seven civilians in Shwe Khon Taing and Say Min Taw villages during raids conducted March 15-16.

Among the victims was a blind woman in her 80s named Khin Pu and a man in his 70s named Kar Kyaw, both of whom were burned alive when junta troops set fire to their homes. Additionally, troops shot dead Than Htwe, a 55-year-old villager suffering from mental illness, Ko Phone said.

Thakin Zaw of the Yaw Revolution Army, an anti-junta People’s Defense Force group, said that a 10th grade student from Say Min Taw village who had fled fighting there was found shot in the head with his hands tied behind his back. He said his group is investigating who is responsible for the killing.

International aid stalled

Those lucky enough to have escaped raids are often unable to return to their homes because of a military presence or are too afraid to go back. In the meantime, they are entirely reliant on donations for things like food, medicine, and shelter.

An aid worker in Kayah said that it is imperative that both the junta and the shadow National Unity Government work with international organizations in order to assist the growing number of refugees in Myanmar.

“Officials and responsible persons … should cooperate with international organizations on humanitarian grounds to provide practical and effective assistance such as food and medicine,” the aid worker said.

An agreement was reached by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 6, 2022, to provide immediate aid to war refugees in Myanmar through the junta’s Ministry of International Cooperation in tandem with U.N. aid agencies. 

But refugees and the aid workers who are helping them said that they have yet to receive effective assistance in the more than 10 months that have passed since the agreement – claims that were echoed by the Karenni Human Rights Group’s Banyar and Pado Saw Thamaing Tun, a central committee member of the ethnic Karen National Union.

Attempts by RFA to contact Ko Ko Hlaing, the junta’s minister of international cooperation, by phone went unanswered Wednesday. Emailed requests for comment to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management and the UNOCHA had yet to receive a response by the time of publishing. 

According to the UNOCHA, at least 1.4 million people have been forced to flee fighting since the coup, joining the more than 300,000 already displaced in Myanmar prior to the takeover.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Matt Reed.


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