Exodus to Thailand continues after fall of Myawaddy
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Exodus to Thailand continues after fall of Myawaddy

Anti-junta resistance claims control of Myanmar border town, as residents fear air strikes

Thai military personnel stand guard as people, some of them fearing air strikes, queue at a border crossing in Mae Sot to flee Myanmar early on Friday. (Photo: Reuters)
Thai military personnel stand guard as people, some of them fearing air strikes, queue at a border crossing in Mae Sot to flee Myanmar early on Friday. (Photo: Reuters)

TAK - A stream of people, some fearing air strikes, queued at a border crossing to flee Myanmar on Friday, a day after the strategically vital town of Myawaddy near Thailand fell to anti-junta resistance that is gaining strength.

The loss of the town robs the junta, already grappling with an economy in free fall, of vital earnings from border trade while strengthening rebel groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU) that led the assault on Myawaddy, analysts say.

“I am afraid of air strikes,” said Moe Moe Thet San, a Myawaddy resident who crossed to Thailand with her son, who is about five years old.

“They caused very loud noises that shook my house,” added the 39-year-old mother, one of those gathered at the single fully operational border crossing at Mae Sot, who said the sound of bombs drove them to leave home, fearing for their safety.

“That’s why I escaped here. They can’t bomb Thailand,” she added.

Local media reports said a group of government troops that had retreated from their base to the Friendship Bridge were attacked by resistance groups using drones on Friday.

Myawaddy, a strategically key trading outpost, was wrested from military control by anti-junta forces led by the Karen National Union (KNU) rebel group on Thursday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara on Friday visited Mae Sot, just across the Moei River from Myawaddy, to assess matters after Myanmar’s embattled junta lost yet more territory in the latest round of fighting.

He said Thailand has sent messages to the junta to reduce violence, adding that preparations are under way for an influx of people crossing into the country.

Mr Parnpree also said Thailand was working with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to follow the stalled peace plan for Myanmar, known as the five-point consensus.

The consensus, agreed on in 2021 at a meeting attended by junta head Min Aung Hlaing, calls for talks that involve all sides in the conflict. But the Myanmar government refuses to take part in any talks that include its opponents, whom it brands as “terrorists”.

“Thailand wants to see peace and dialogue,” Mr Parnpree told reporters in Mae Sot.

The minister also said that no request to enter Thailand had been received so far from the junta soldiers at the bridge.

He added that Thailand was considering alternative trade routes in case of road closures caused by the fighting.

Junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun told Myanmar media some of its troops had surrendered because they were accompanied by their families and talks with Thailand for their return were in progress.

He did not respond to a telephone call from Reuters to seek comment.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since 2021, when the powerful military deposed an elected civilian government, triggering widespread protests it sought to crush with brutal force.

Simmering anger against the junta turned into a nationwide armed resistance movement that is now increasingly operating in coordination with established ethnic rebel groups to challenge the military across large parts of the country.

A soldier stands guard, as 200 Myanmar military personnel withdrew to a bridge to Thailand on Thursday after a days-long assault by the anti-junta Karen resistance, which declared it had won control of the critical border town of Myawaddy. (Photo: Reuters)

About 200 Myanmar military personnel withdrew on Thursday to a bridge linking to Mae Sot after the KNU said it had taken control of Myawaddy.

But the Myanmar military may still seek to mount a counter-attack, supported by its air force, to regain the town, said Dulyapak Preecharush, an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

"So, there is a question about possible intensification of fighting in the coming days," he told Reuters.

Numbers double

As fighting in Myanmar intensified, the numbers crossing to Mae Sot from Myawaddy doubled this week to about 4,000 a day.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said the fighting in Myanmar should not spill into Thailand's airspace.

In an interview with Reuters last week, Mr Srettha said the Myanmar junta was "losing strength", as he pushes to open talks with the regime.    

Thailand, which says it is keeping neutral in the Myanmar conflict and can accept up to 100,000 people displaced by it, has pursued engagement, including aid deliveries, with its neighbour since Mr Srettha came to power last August.

Yet the junta could find itself stretched further after the Arakan Army rebel group warned it would renew an offensive in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine.

Arakan Army chief Twan Mrat Naing warned residents of the Rakhine cities of Sittwe and Kyauk Phyu to relocate ahead of "a decisive battle", the group said in a statement.

One of Myanmar's most powerful ethnic armed forces, the Arakan Army was part of Operation 1027, a major assault by three rebel groups last October that seized significant territory from the junta.

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