At least 3,000 people have fled Karen State from eastern Myanmar to Thailand to escape military airstrikes, marking the biggest refugee movement since the February 1 coup that overthrew Aung’s government San Suu Kyi.
Cross-border exodus will fuel growing concerns that military-caused conflict takeover and attacks on civilians could spill over into neighboring countries.
Non-governmental organizations and the National Karen Union, a rebel group representing Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority, said people crossed the Salween River separating the countries on Sunday.
According to local NGOs, the army dropped bombs and fired automatic weapons the day before in territory held by the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU, after the KNLA passed a military post.
The Karens are one of the several minority groups in the highlands of Myanmar which have been fighting the country’s military for decades. The KNU signed a ceasefire agreement in 2015.
The KNU denounced the coup and supported the mass civil disobedience movement to oppose it. In particular, this allowed hundreds of people fleeing the heart of ethnic Burma to take shelter in the territory it controls.
Padoh Saw Taw Nee, head of the KNU’s foreign affairs department, told the Financial Times that new military attacks had caused around 4,000 more people to flee into the jungle. “If the airstrikes continue, they might find a way to cross the border and take refuge in Thailand,” he said.
Thai PBS, the Thai public broadcaster, confirmed that around 3,000 people had arrived in the northwestern province of Mae Hong Son. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said his government was preparing for a potential influx of refugees from Myanmar “but how many – we’re not talking about that,” according to Reuters.
His government has not condemned coup, and Thailand was one of the few countries to send representatives to mark Myanmar Armed Forces Day on Saturday.
“This is the first of what could be much larger refugee flows,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst, adding that there was a risk of “more serious conflict”.
“The economic and security crisis in Myanmar can also lead to significant displacement of people,” he said.
The Burmese junta, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, has faced international condemnation for kill protesters and others, including children. Security forces killed 459 people and detained more than 2,559, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners, a human rights group.
As many as 700 refugees have also arrived in northeast India, including police officers who defied orders to shoot at protesting crowds, local media reported.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has taken a firm stand, with the Interior Ministry asking officials in four states bordering Myanmar to identify and deport those New Delhi considered to be “illegal migrants”.
The Indian government has also told state officials that they have neither the right nor the authority to overtake the refugees who have arrived. India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and Modi’s government has traditionally taken a hostile stance against those it considers illegal migrants.
But local authorities, who share close cultural and kinship ties with communities on Myanmar’s western border, have defied instructions to quell the influx, and many refugees are taking refuge in local villages.
The latest influx came as New Delhi was taking the first steps to implement a long-standing deportation plan thousands of Muslim Rohingyas who fled previous military repressions. In recent weeks, hundreds of Rohingya have been arrested and placed in camps for their expulsion from the country.