Fierce fighting has erupted in eastern Burma (Myanmar) after rebels launched an assault on a government-held border town, forcing thousands of refugees to flee into Thailand. Clashes were also reported at another border crossing further south. The violence, which came one day after rare elections held in the military-ruled country, underscores the fragility of cease-fires with armed groups in Burma’s war-torn borderlands.
Thailand said it had offered temporary sanctuary to more than 10,000 refugees fleeing the fighting in Myawaddy, the Burmese border town. The official border crossing has been closed since July during preparations for the election, but Burmese often cross illegally back and forth between the two sides. Mae Sot, the Thai border town, is a hotbed for exiled Burmese activists and ethnic minorities.
Monday’s clashes involved a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), an ethnic-based militia. Initial reports suggested that the rebels had captured Myawaddy, an important trading hub, but Thai sources said they had been repelled. Burmese media reported that the town was under emergency rule.
Karen groups have fought for decades for independence from Burmese rule, as have other ethnic and communist groups in a complex and protracted civil war that has provided a justification of sorts for continued military rule. While the Army is dominated by ethnic Burmese, minorities make up over one-third of the population.
In recent months, disgruntled rebel groups have resisted pressure to put their troops under Burmese military control in the run-up to Sunday’s election. Some had vowed to form a united front against any effort to force them to comply, though it’s not clear if Monday’s clashes were part of any common strategy. The DKBA was among the groups that had agreed to merge its forces with Burma’s Army, but not all commanders complied.
On Monday, another DKBA unit attacked the Three Pagodas border town south of Myawaddy and razed several government buildings, according to the Irrawaddy, an exiled Burmese website in Thailand. It put the combined forces of the breakaway DKBA faction at around 1,000 troops.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the turmoil could continue for three months and promised that refugees could stay on the Thai side of the border. Thailand already hosts several large camps of refugees including ethnic Karen who fled earlier stages of fighting. Of the new arrivals, some are staying at a Buddhist monastery in Mae Sot, while others have been housed in a Thai Army compound, according to Thai news media.
A Thai military official said that troops were already on alert in Mae Sot before fighting began late on Sunday. “Everyone was anticipating this, that after the election there will be fighting,” he says.