Myanmar rebels accelerate attacks, refugee crisis looms large

A Kachin Independence Army fighter standing guard. Photo: anevillemorgan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

As fighting intensifies between Myanmar’s military and ethnic rebel groups, civilians are being forced to flee their homes to Thailand and India. A humanitarian crisis with regional implications could erupt if the trend continues.

By Umair Jamal

Myanmar’s ethnic rebel groups have stepped up attacks on the country’s military as the new junta enters its fourth month in power.

Rebel groups have attacked bases and reportedly brought down a military helicopter. As expected, these attacks have drawn a fierce response from the military, with new offensives forcing thousands of people from ethnic states and regions to flee.

The displaced are increasingly fleeing into Thailand and India as fighting escalates. A major refugee crisis may be in the making as many of Southeast Asia’s governments maintain their unwelcoming stances towards migrants.

Ethnic rebel groups have accelerated attacks on the military

Myanmar appears to be on the verge of a full-blown civil war as ethnic armed groups ramp up attacks on the military.

During the last week of April, the Karen National Union (KNU) mounted an attack on a military base near the Thai border in eastern Myanmar and captured it, according to Padoh Saw Taw Nee, KNU’s head of foreign affairs.

The group attacked another military base in March, prompting airstrikes from regime forces against KNU territories in Karen State. The KNU has opposed the military’s coup and called for a united front to challenge the military. Vice Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Baw Kyaw Heh wrote a letter calling for Karen armed groups to unite regardless of their loyalties.

“Never has there been such a great opportunity during the 70-plus years of revolution. Take advantage of this and fight against the Burmese military dictatorship,” Baw Kyaw Heh wrote in the letter. “In our generation, let us stand united… to escape the military dictatorship.”

On May 3, a rebel group in northern Myanmar said it had shot down a military helicopter during fighting with government forces. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the most powerful ethnic armed groups in the country, said that it attacked the helicopter as retaliation for the military’s airstrikes.

“The military council launched airstrikes in that area since around 8 or 9 this morning… using jet fighters and also fired shots using a helicopter—so we shot back at them,” Colonel Naw Bu,  a KIA spokesperson, said in a statement.

The toll of the clashes between rebel groups and the military on civilians is already severe.

An anti-coup protest in Kayin State. Photo: Ninjastrikers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands migrate to Thailand and India from rebel-controlled areas

Since the coup on February 1, fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups has forced at least 50,000 people in the country’s ethnic states and regions to flee their homes.

Over 3,000 people have reportedly fled Karen State into Thailand to seek refuge. “People say the Burmese will come and shoot us, so we fled here,” said Chu Wah, a Karen civilian who crossed into Thailand with his family, in an interview with Reuters.

Thai authorities have reportedly denied thousands of Myanmar civilians entry as they seek refuge from military raids.

“This is the first of what could be much larger refugee flows,” said Richard Horsey, a Myanmar adviser with the International Crisis Group. “The economic and security crisis in Myanmar may also drive major population displacement.”

The situation along the Myanmar-India border is similarly getting worse as Indian authorities try to block refugees from entering. Over 1,000 people have arrived in northern India from Myanmar since the February 1 military coup, though India’s central government has told the four states bordering Myanmar to treat incoming refugees as “illegal migrants.” The government has asked state authorities to identify new immigrants and deport them.

While rebel attacks may be a morale booster for Myanmar’s anti-coup protesters, the humanitarian costs of the fighting are increasing. At this point, it is still unclear if the ethnic armed groups’ attacks on the military will force the junta to stop its crackdown on civilian protestors or simply provoke the generals further.  

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15