Karen living in fear after Thailand turns its back
For more than a week, thousands of Karen villagers who fled the airstrikes on March 27 that targeted the Karen National Union (KNU) stronghold have been stranded in the jungle, starving and in fear for their lives.
As their Day Puh Noh village on the KNU territory was destroyed, with several deaths and injuries, some 10,000 Karen villagers, children and old people tried to cross the Salween River to Thailand where they hoped they could take shelter. But Thai authorities did not allow them to enter the country. In despair, they were made to cross back. But they dared not return to the heavily damaged village. Instead, they scattered into the jungle.
"The villagers are frightened by the airstrikes, bombings and gunshots. They chose to hide in the jungle, and dare not leave," said Saw Kadoe, head of Ei Tu Tha internally displaced persons camp. A Reuters report cited a Thai doctor who treated the injured, saying it was as if they "have been through a war", with numerous shrapnel wounds having become infected due to a lack of proper medical care.
Ei Tu Tha is situated on the Salween Bank in Karen territory, opposite Thailand's Salween National Park. It is home to some 2,000 displaced Karen who fled Myanmar military raids during the past two decades.
When the airstrikes hit the KNU territory on that fateful day, some inside the Ta Itu camp took the boat, heading to the Thai border. But they were forced back overnight in what the Thai government labelled a "voluntary decision". This is simply not true. As the Karen were crossing back from the safety of Thai soil, they said they could still hear the sounds of fighter jet engines and bomb attacks. The Myanmar military was said to be scouring the area using drones.
So, they believed they'd have a better chance if they hid in the jungle.
But food and drinking water and other necessities like medicines quickly ran out.
"When we fled, there was no time to prepare food, or anything. I did not bring rice, nor rice pots. As we reached Mae Neu Ta, kind-hearted villagers gave us food. We learned some people from outside had sent rice but the Thai authorities blocked the supply. Our food will last just a few days," a Karen mother said via a video clip on April 4, a few days after Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had given assurances of humanitarian assistance to these people.
Now the Thai government is at the centre of criticism after networks of ethnic people complained that local authorities had obstructed them from sending food and necessities to those who are starving in the war zone. This is humanitarian deficiency, which is unacceptable.
Some media outlets have obtained security documents involving the handling of displaced persons from the border. They state: "Those who do not flee the killing will be pushed out immediately. Those who run away from the killing may take temporary shelter near the border and they will have to return to Myanmar soil when the situation allows."
Besides, there is an instruction assigning the military to lead the operation, and prohibits staffers of the UNHCR and NGOs from making direct contact with the troubled Karen, nor "interfering in the Thai state's work". The area is off-limit to members of the press.
It's evident the Thai soldiers were abiding by government instructions. But while the Thai authorities limit humanitarian operations by the UN agency and international organisations, people could not help but ask about the mysterious rice supply, 700 sacks, that was conveniently passed through military rangers at Mae Sam Lap in Mae Hong Son's Sop Moei district, and which was piled up on the riverbank, waiting to be delivered to the Myanmar base along the Salween River late last month. When the attempted delivery was reported by the media, top military officers and the prime minister loudly denied it and the rice disappeared.
A question emerges: Has the Thai government chosen sides in the Myanmar conflict?
In the past when military ties between the two countries were not cordial, it's known that the Thai state used armed factions of ethnic groups including the Karen as a buffer. Now things have changed. There are reports Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing has close relations with several Thai top brass. It's said the Myanmar strongman was like a "stepson" to the late Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, former army chief and premier.
But lest we forget, Karen people, from the Salween River down to the Andaman Sea, have strong bonds with their Thai neighbours. We are like family, living side by side in harmony. Even though Thailand formally recognises Myanmar, Thai-Karen ties always bind.
The government has to make the right choice between being humane and a friend to the brutal junta.
Paskorn Jumlongrach is the founder of www.transbordernews.in.th.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th