More than a quarter of a million civilians in seven regions of Myanmar have been displaced by clashes between the military and militias or fighting between ethnic armies in the four months since the junta overthrew the country’s democratically elected government, aid groups said Wednesday.
On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military staged a coup, seizing power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), rejecting its landslide victory in November 2020 general elections as the result of voter fraud. The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and citizens from all walks of life have protested the junta.
Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country of 54 million that have led to fierce battles with a plethora of People’s Defense Force (PSF) militias formed to protect residents from troops loyal to the junta. Ethnic armies in other parts of the nation have used the instability to encroach on one another’s territory.
As of the first week of June, aid groups estimate that more than 100,000 people had been forced to flee clashes in Kayah state, 14,000 in Kachin state, 100,000 in Moebye township alone in southern Shan state, as well as 2,000 in northern Shan state, 60,000 in Kayin state, 15,000 in Chin state, 15,000 in Sagaing region, and 10,000 in Magway region.
The 226,000 displaced in 2021 join more 500,000 refugees from decades of military conflict between the government military and ethnic armies who were already counted as internally displaced persons at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
Aung Myo Min, minister for human rights for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), comprised of the country’s ousted elected leadership, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he is working with the Ministry of Humanitarian and Disaster Management to assist refugees.
“We are working with parliamentarians and local groups in the regions to provide much-needed shelter and assistance to displaced people,” he said. “We are trying to find ways to provide them with food and medicine.”
Aung Myo Min said the Ministry of Education is also working to provide education programs to displaced children who cannot attend classes, while the NUG is collaborating with ethnic health organizations to provide medical attention to the refugees.
In eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state, fighting erupted in Demoso township on May 20 between the military and a branch of the People’s Defense Force (PSF) militia formed to protect residents from troops loyal to the junta, forcing 10,000 people to flee, according to Ma Khine of the Kayah State Refugee Assistance Committee.
By the end of the month, at least 100,000 had fled their homes after the military pounded the townships of Loikaw, Demoso, and Hpruso with airstrikes, she said.
“People who fled into the forests and mountains have to live in makeshift tents in bamboo groves and under trees,” she told RFA, saying they are now in desperate need of medicine and food.
“Much of the available water is not good enough for drinking and many people are suffering from diarrhea. It is the rainy season, and the conditions are very difficult during heavy downpours.”
According to the government’s 2014 census, nearly 300,000 people live in Kayah state, mostly in the townships of Demoso and Hpruso, suggesting that one in every three residents has been displaced by the fighting.
Fighting in other regions
In eastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, which lies along the country’s border with Thailand, more than 60,000 people are displaced, including nearly 40,000 who fled military airstrikes and artillery shelling of the Karen National Union (KNU) controlled district of Papun, according to the Karen Peace Support Group.
“Their artillery units were constantly shelling [the area] and their ground units were frequently launching attacks from nearby outposts, so there were a lot of casualties among the civilians and their communications lines are totally cut off,” said Karen Peace Support Group spokeswoman Naw Wah Ku Shee, adding that refugees are now in desperate need of food and security.
In northwestern Myanmar’s Chin state, more than 15,000 people from some 50 villages in Mindat township have fled to the mountains to escape fighting between the military and the members of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) militia, a network of volunteers that formed in April, who are taking on Myanmar’s army—the second largest in Southeast Asia—with slingshots and the same crude flintlock “Tumee” rifles their forefathers used to fight off British colonizers in the 1880s.
“The army is currently launching attacks on places where people are taking shelter,” a local source told RFA on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.
“They came in three columns, each with more than 100 troops. It is difficult for us to get rice and water and there are no blankets. There is no safety either. We could hear the sound of heavy weapons from our camp the whole day.”
The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) estimates that some 40,000 civilians have fled their homes throughout Chin state since May.
In Kani township, in northwest Myanmar’s Sagaing region, more than 15,000 people from some 40 villages have been displaced by fighting between the local PDF and the military since April 2.
“The people are facing a lot of hardship—they have to go searching for food in the heavy rains and don’t have any protection from the elements,” a Kani township PDF member told RFA.
“They are surviving on wild animals for food. They do not have enough medicine. The military has left for the moment, but if they come back, we’ll see more refugees.”
In Magway region, to the west, fighting between the PDF and the military in Gangaw township has been ongoing since June 3, causing more than 10,000 people from six villages to seek refuge in the mountains.
“Most people are now hiding in the forests,” a resident said. “Some have only one meal a day, while others have nothing.”
In addition to clashes with the military regime, Myanmar’s myriad ethnic armies have continued to fight amongst themselves in the pursuit of new territory, further exacerbating the country’s refugee crisis.
In neighboring Shan state, fighting between Shan State Reconstruction Council (SSRC) forces and the combined forces of Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) began in late April in northern Shan’s Hsipaw and Namtu townships, forcing some 2,000 people to flee their homes according to sources.
While clashes have subsided since June 4, more than 100 houses in four villages were destroyed in the fighting, leaving many who escaped to safety without a place to live.
On Tuesday, the United Nations in Myanmar voiced concern about what it called “the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Kayah state and other areas in southeastern Myanmar.”
The U.N. specifically referred to the estimated 100,000 men, women, and children in Kayah that it said are mostly seeking safety in host communities and forests across the state and southern parts of Shan state, noting that the crisis could lead refugees to spill across international borders, as seen in other parts of the country. Some 15,000 civilians are believed to have fled across the border into India’s state of Mizoram to escape fighting in Chin state in recent weeks.
The U.N. stressed the urgent need for food, water, shelter, fuel, and access to healthcare for people fleeing the fighting, saying that the aid it has distributed is insufficient—particularly for those in remote locations, where insecurity, travel restrictions, and poor road conditions are delaying the delivery of supplies.
A spokesman for UNICEF in Myanmar told RFA on Wednesday that more than 200 staff members are working to support relief efforts for affected children and provide them with water, food and other necessities.
According to the Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 858 civilians have been killed and nearly 4,800 people have been arrested in Myanmar since the military coup.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.