Fear rules desolate border battleground
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Fear rules desolate border battleground

Villagers at Ban Tha Ta Fang, Mae Sariang district, Mae Hong Son province have built a 'baby bunker' at a village school to protect children from stray artillery from fighting across the border. courtesy of TransborderNews
Villagers at Ban Tha Ta Fang, Mae Sariang district, Mae Hong Son province have built a 'baby bunker' at a village school to protect children from stray artillery from fighting across the border. courtesy of TransborderNews

Many houses have their own bunkers, with some villagers even digging holes and putting layers of sandbags around them. A few houses even have concrete or wooden roofing covered with sandbags.

Even the only school in the village is equipped with "baby bunkers" that can act as shelter during an emergency. To keep kids from being scared, the "baby bunkers" are painted in pink to make them look more like part of a playground.

This is not a scene from a movie. All these bunkers -- including the "baby bunker" -- clearly attest to the present situation of a village along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Indeed, the scene is a reminder of the daily reality of Ban Tha Ta Fang village. Lying by the Salween River in Mae Sariang district, Mae Hong Son province, Ban Tha Ta Fang is right on the frontier opposite Myanmar's Karen State.

A huge armed conflict took place during the dry season of 2021 between the Myanmar army and the soldiers of the Karen National Union (KNU)'s Brigade 5 in the area across from Ban Tha Ta Fang. Artillery shells fell into the paddy fields close to the villages prompting the villagers to flee to the streams deep in the forests on Thai soil.

I have a fond memory of this village and used to be mesmerised by its picturesque scenery -- particularly the turbidity of the vast Salween River's water, and the expansive dense forest painted in shades of dark green on the side of the Karen State.

In the village itself, I loved to stroll along the Kongka stream that runs through before emptying clear water through boulders into the Salween. Both sides of the stream harbour a cascade of terrace paddy fields.

I revisited this border village again in May this year. It remains peaceful and serene. But it has become eerily isolated. The village was cut off from the outside world like never before. That is because the Thai military has barred access to media and humanitarian groups in the area where asylum seekers from our neighbouring country are seeking a safe place.

A member of the village committee told me that there is a deep sympathy for the Karen. Despite living on opposite sides of the river in different countries, Thai villagers feel the Karen belong to the same tribe.

"I have much pity for the children who have to live by the streams in the forest behind our village. Some suffer from malaria, others from diarrhoea.

"We do not know how to help them since we are prohibited. One woman was about to give birth to a baby, but she could go nowhere. As a result, both mother and unborn child died.

"Some children who had been sent back have managed to swim back again. Some stay stranded in their boats floating in the middle of the Salween River since they are not permitted to cross to Thailand, but remain too afraid to return to live in Karen State."

There has been fighting in Karen State since March last year, a month after Tatmadaw -- Myanmar's junta -- staged a coup in February. The Karen National Union then were trying to cut supplies to pressure the Myanmar army stationed at the base by the Salween River, in a bid to push them out.

For over a year, Ban Tha Ta Fang has had to bear witness to casualties of war as it is located opposite the Myanmar army headquarters.

Villagers become more worried. As defeat became a possibility, the Myanmar army last month dispatched MiG-29 fighter jets to attack the Karen security forces. Meanwhile, Ban Tha Ta Fang's geography resembles a pig's stomach as it is the point where the Salween meanders into Karen State, and local villagers in Ban Tha Ta Fang were thus able to see the MiG-29s hovering above their heads.

In fact, artillery shells have fallen in this area several times terrifying villagers who have to witness a strong response from the Thai army.

"The flying of the Myanmar army's fighter jets over our head makes us feel terribly unsafe," the same member of the village committee recently told me later over the phone.

The provincial governor made a visit and promised a budget worth 10 million baht to build secure bunkers, according to the committee member.

"When the proposal was submitted, the Department of National Parks said permission had to be sought since the land is part of a national park. Meanwhile, the public health authorities are preoccupied worrying about Covid-19 infections. In the end, the governor was transferred somewhere else, and the plan to build a bunker evaporated."

Ever since then, villagers have taken it upon themselves to make their own bunkers at their homes and the village school. The town now has 34 bunkers of various sizes.

Nowadays, the fighting by the Salween River between the Myanmar army and the Karen army still happens periodically. Along Thailand's western border including Valley Village in Tak's Phop Phra district there have been reports of the MiG-29s violating Thai airspace and firing at a pickup trucks belonging to a Thai villager.

The news draws the attention of Thais.

"The Myanmar soldiers gave only an apology after they fired artillery across the border to our village. But if we want to fire back in retaliation, we have to first give them warning, or seek their permission?" quipped someone during a group chat about the problem.

"When they are here to seek refuge, we should first tend to their need. We should not just push them back right away" said another who is among those who are troubled by an order which bars them from extending their kindness or help to the refugees.

Peaceful evenings in Ban Tha Ta Fang are still interrupted by noise of explosions on occasion.

I feel warmed by the friendship and support of the villagers who help each other, but gazing out into the darkness, I understand the sense of desolation they feel.

This village has been left alone, uncared for and unsupported by the state even though it serves as a border frontier.

Nowadays, the villagers of Ban Tha Ta Fang and the community along the western border must bear the brunt of the armed conflict between the Myanmar army and the ethnic armed forces unaided.

They have so many questions yet remain without any assurance of help as the conflict continues.

Nowadays, many believe that no one in the corridors of power will step forward with words or deeds that can make them feel safe in their own homes again.

Paskorn Jumlongrach is the founder of www.transbordernews.in.th

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

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