By Robin Gomes
As news of the brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces against the opponents of the February 1 military coup continues to draw media attention, the military is cranking up its offensive against the insurgent groups, displacing thousands of innocent civilians.
20,000 Karen displaced
More than 20,000 people in Myanmar’s Karen state have been forced to flee their homes as the military has continued its air and ground attacks since late March, according to Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group that provides help to internally displaced people in the southeast nation, also called Burma. It said, “The newly displaced people are unable to tend their crops or take care of their animals and are surviving on emergency rations they have hidden. But not only do they need food now, this will become a greater crisis if they cannot plant their fields,” and take care of their animals.
After seizing power in a February 1 coup, the military junta has failed to crush the nation-wide daily protests and a civil disobedience movement, including a strike, calling for the release of the nation’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy.
The army’s latest air and ground offensive against the Karen people began on March 27 after the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) attacked a military camp, killing 10 soldiers. They were the first airstrikes in 20 years in Karen state, which has been relatively peaceful since a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015.
In a report on Tuesday, Free Burma Rangers said that 14 Karen people have been killed and more than 40 wounded in airstrikes. “The biggest result of these airstrikes has been over 20,000 people hiding in the jungle, afraid to stay in their homes and be the next target, unable to go out to their fields,” it said. Schools, clinics, homes and mining operations have been hit by the military’s airstrikes. The military has also been reinforcing a ground offensive into Karen territory that forced villagers to flee their homes.
According to Free Burma Rangers, the military announced a ceasefire with ethnic armed groups on April 1 but conducted multiple airstrikes in Papun district of Karen state the same day. It said, “the army is improving their road network into Karen State to further project their power, with dismounted infantry moving with bulldozers to build and repair roads.” “They are resupplying their camps in the area including new camps they have built. The infantry battalions also attack from roads and camps into villages and chase the villagers deeper into the jungle. They fire machine guns and… heavy mortars into the jungle to kill anyone who dares to stay.”
Preparing for all-out war
The fact that these airstrikes are carried out at night shows that the military has increased its capability, capacity, and lethality. The jets usually come in two at a time, dropping bombs, some of which, according to the villagers’ description, appear to be cluster bombs. The jets flying low are also strafing with machine guns and cannons.
According to David Eubank, the founder of Free Burma Rangers, “The situation now seems, from our perspective, to be an all-out war to the finish.” “Unless there is a miracle,” he warned, “the Burma Army will not hold back in their attempt to crush the Karen and any other ethnic group that stands against them,” just as they have not hesitated to kill people across the nation.
The Karen National Union and its military wing KNLA have historically been one of the biggest adversaries of the military and long resisted ceasefire agreements. The KNU started a rebellion in 1949, which waged for over 70 years until 2012, one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies. The KNLA and several other ethnic armies have sided with opponents of the military coup, Reuters said after interviews with representatives of three such groups and the ousted civilian government.
Myanmar has suffered long under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. During the nearly 5 decades, almost all dissent was suppressed with gross human rights abuse, which drew international condemnation and sanctions. A gradual liberalization began in 2010, leading to free elections in 2015 and the installation of a government led by Suu Kyi the following year.
The coup came after days of escalating tension between the civilian government and the powerful military, which claimed that the November general election, won overwhelmingly by the NLD, was fraudulent.