The Myanmar military’s bombing of civilian areas in Karen State represents a major escalation in the conflict with Karen ethnic armed forces. The attacks seem to indicate that the junta will try to end the country’s long-running civil wars through brute force, despite decades of evidence that this is likely impossible.
In late March, the Myanmar military launched airstrikes on civilian areas in Karen State, unilaterally escalating one of the country’s oldest armed conflicts and showing that the new junta has no intention of bringing Myanmar’s civil wars to an end.
The country’s peace process was largely stalled under Aung San Suu Kyi’s now-deposed civilian administration but relations between the military and the Karen National Union (KNU), the principal political organization of ethnic Karen in Myanmar, had improved since the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015.
From March 27-30, Myanmar military planes attacked civilian areas in Mu Traw district, killing at least three people, injuring dozens and forcing over 10,000 civilians to leave their homes and seek shelter in the forest. The bombing destroyed a number of homes as well as the schools in two villages.
Around 8,000 civilians from the targeted areas are now displaced within Karen State and another 3,000 or more attempted to cross the Salween River into Thailand before Thai authorities forced many of them to return.
The airstrikes came after the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, attacked a Myanmar military post on the Thai border, killing 10 soldiers and reportedly capturing eight. The KNU said the Karen forces launched the attack because the Myanmar military failed to respect ceasefire terms and ignored calls for de-escalation.
In the weeks prior to the attack, the Myanmar military had subjected civilian areas in Karen State to intermittent shelling with mortars. The impacted area includes Ei Thu Hta camp for internally displaced people, home to civilians who had already fled the fighting in years past.
“It is not safe. No one dares to sleep inside their homes at night. Some sleep in bomb shelters they have dug,” a resident of Ei Thu Hta told The Irrawaddy. “We have to stay where we think it is safe and we can’t sleep well.”
The airstrikes in Karen State came as Myanmar security forces killed at least 114 civilians in a single day as part of a crackdown on protests across the country.
KNU and Karen civil society respond to renewed violence
The military’s decision to escalate its conflict with the KNU defies logic, as decades of fighting between the central government and ethnic armed groups have made it clear that there can be no military solution to Myanmar’s civil wars. Given this, the junta’s aggression in Karen State indicates that the generals have no interest in ending Myanmar’s armed conflicts.
The Karen, like many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, will not cede control to the Burmese and any stability that the junta can achieve through force will be short-lived.
In a statement issued after the attacks in late March, the KNU wrote, “We have no other options left but to confront these serious threats posed by the illegitimate military junta’s army in order to defend our territory.”
The worsening toll of the violence will only further undermine any attempts by the military to rule through brute force. Karen Human Rights Group, along with others in Myanmar, called for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution endorsing humanitarian intervention and to refer military leaders to the International Criminal Court.
The KNLA was already calling for the military to take active steps towards implementing the NCA. “We have long foreseen a military offensive at the end of the dead-end NCA peace process,” read a statement issued after the bombings.
Refugees push Thailand to clarify its stance towards Myanmar’s junta
The violence in Karen State has also cast a spotlight on relations between the government of Thailand and the new Myanmar junta. Reports of Thai authorities forcing refugees to go back into Myanmar prompted an outcry from civil society groups as well as objections from international observers and a flurry of negative media coverage.
“Most of the villagers who had fled into Thailand are children, elderly people and women. They have no food and were given nothing after they arrived in Thailand. So they can’t stay there for long and they are afraid to return home. They have nowhere to flee. As they were turned back by the Thai authorities, they have to return to their villages. They have dug holes and are living underground,” said a spokesman for the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN).
The Thai government denied that it had forced refugees to return and claimed some refugees returned voluntarily. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha later commented on the refugee situation. “We don’t want to have an exodus into our territory, but we have to take care of human rights, too,” Prayuth said. “We have prepared an area for the influx. Organizing shelter or refugee centers—we have not talked about that yet.”
An op-ed by former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya called attention to how Thailand has helped Myanmar to find solutions to past crises, as Thailand and ASEAN helped Myanmar’s last junta to undertake reforms leading up to the 2010 election.
“Thailand’s government was a friend to the Myanmar people in the past, assisting in helping to bring an end to decades of military rule,” he wrote. “Instead of standing on the side of Myanmar’s generals, who have wrought devastation on the country, it’s time for our government to support the Myanmar people, and be their friend once again during their time of need.”
The former foreign minister has joined a significant push from within Thailand calling on the government to protect asylum seekers and grant them refugee status.
The violence in Karen State will likely continue and the recent escalation suggests that the generals still believe they can win through military means.
Myanmar’s armed conflicts are not intractable; they are prolonged decade after decade by the military’s belief that it can control a diverse, multi-ethnic country and subject its people to autocracy. The damage from the country’s last dictatorship was immense, but it also showed that the junta will not succeed—a lesson that Min Aung Hlaing apparently never learned.