Thais deny army forcing back Myanmar refugees fleeing air strikes

Ethnic Karen villagers who fled air attacks by the Myanmar military resting in a jungle area after crossing the Thai border, on March 28, 2021.
Ethnic Karen villagers who fled air attacks by the Myanmar military resting in a jungle area after crossing the Thai border, on March 28, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CHIANG MAI (REUTERS) - About 2,000 refugees fleeing Myanmar to Thailand had been pushed back despite ongoing aerial bombardment, two activist groups said on Monday (March 29), but the Thai authorities said the army was taking care of them on the border.

Video showed villagers carrying their belongings boarding boats under the watch of Thai officials. The authorities blocked Reuters reporters from accessing the area.

Thousands fled Myanmar over the weekend after fighter jets attacked villages near the border held by an ethnic armed group that had attacked a military post in the wake of a Feb 1 coup by Myanmar's army.

"There are still fighter jets over the area," Mr Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters.

"Thailand's heartless and illegal act must stop now," Mr Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.

Mr Thichai Jindaluang, the governor of Thailand's Mae Hong Son province, told reporters the refugees were not being pushed back. They were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media reported.

A Thai provincial official from Mae Hong Son who declined to be named said the group was "in Thai territory by the Salween River but they haven't come further. It's under army management".

Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said late on Monday night that reports that some ethnic Karens who fled Thailand were forced to return to Myanmar territory were “inaccurate”.

“In fact, the Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” he said.

However Colonel Chaidan Grisanasuwarn, commander of the special taskforce of Thailand’s 7th infantry division overseeing the area, confirmed the move to push the villagers back across the Salween River to Myanmar.

“We asked them to return because we don’t see any risk,” he told The Straits Times. “Some of them go back and forth (across the river) regularly.”

He said this decision applied to residents of Ei Tu Hta camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) on the Myanmar side of the border, “as it’s a big group”.

Meanwhile, Thai soldiers have laid out barbed wire in what some of the evicted Myanmar villagers claim is an attempt to stop them from returning to Thai soil.

“The barbed wire is there to prevent the spread of disease,” the colonel said, referring to Covid-19 infections. “It’s for protection of officials and is not meant to harm the IDPs.”

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said earlier on Monday the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting the Myanmar junta, telling reporters "there is probably no one to support the use of violence against the people".

Myanmar security forces have killed at least 459 people since the coup as it seeks to crush mass protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Hundreds of people, including politicians from the former civilian government, have fled central areas and taken shelter in territory held by ethnic armed groups.

Myanmar's military has for decades justified its grip on power by saying it is the only institution capable of preserving national unity.

It seized power on Feb 1 saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

Additional reporting by Kannikar Petchkaew