Residents of Myanmar’s Kayah State flee to jungle to escape military junta

·6-min read

Fighting between local militia groups and the military junta has forced tens of thousands of people from Kayah State, in eastern Myanmar, to flee their homes. The military junta has stepped up their use of force, causing entire villages to flee, seeking refuge from attacks, arrests and house-to-house searches. While some have taken shelter in community centres within cities, others have fled to nearby jungles, creating makeshift encampments.

More than three months since the military seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected government on February 1, citizens continue to resist military rule. Strikes, protests and a civil disobedience movement have been met with lethal force from authorities, who have killed more than 800 people, according to local monitors.

The anti-junta resistance government in Myanmar, the National Unity Government, which formed in mid-April, called for the creation of a national “People’s Defence Force” to protect the public from the junta on May 5. Following this announcement, residents of Kayah State (formerly known as Karenni State) organised a militia group called the Karenni People’s Defence Force (KPDF), armed with home-made weapons and traditional hunting rifles.

Other long-standing armed ethnic groups in Kayah State, including the Karenni Army which fought the Burmese government from 1957 until a ceasefire in 2012, have also mobilised against the junta.

On May 21 and 22, members of the KPDF clashed with military and security forces, starting a week of upheaval for the region’s inhabitants.

‘The military found out that the KPDF is able to fight them back’

Our Observer, Aung (not his real name), a community leader in Loikaw, capital of Kayah State, told FRANCE 24 about the increase in violence in his region in the past week:

A few days ago, on May 21, the KPDF was crushed by the force of the military. They started to defend themselves and then attacks started taking place on both sides. The military found out that the KPDF is able to fight them back, so that’s the reason that more attacks are happening here.

On May 21, military personnel entered the town of Demoso, opened fire and arrested 13 people, according to Burmese media. The KPDF responded with force, killing three police officers and attacking police stations in the region. The military promptly deployed reinforcements of at least 100 soldiers and several tanks to Demoso, and increased their presence in several towns of Kayah State and neighbouring Shan State.

The military has since used heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters, even in residential areas, resulting in the destruction of homes and community centres in Demoso.

The fighting has been taking place for a few days already, since May 21. On the 25th, it started early, at 5am. It was almost the whole day, really a big attack. The military used some major weapons: tanks, machine guns, and also rockets. We heard rockets flying from Loikaw towards Demoso. There have been at least seven rockets that we heard. There was a lot of damage done in Demoso, not only damage to properties but also some deaths. Security forces were shooting people on the roads and even intruding into homes.

‘They could not stay at their homes, it’s not safe for them’

To avoid military shelling and ongoing clashes between the junta and militia, residents of Kayah State’s towns have fled their homes to seek shelter. Aung recounts:

There are two groups of people hiding. Some people are trying to hide in the city and others in the jungles. In the city, the old people, infants, women, and the sick have flocked to community places like a church compound, a convent, and a home for the aged. Those places have turned into refugee camps for them. They could not stay at their homes, it’s not safe for them, especially at night. There could be a lot of intruding, attacks, or arrests at night.

The authorities of the church and convent have said that these places are for the safety of people and should not be attacked, out of respect for life. But we still do not know what could happen, and the military may do anything they feel like.

On Sunday, May 23, a church near Loikaw, where more than 300 people were taking shelter, was the target of military shelling. Four people were killed in the attack and the church sustained significant damage.

Churches providing refuge for civilians have begun raising white flags in order to ward off further attacks from military forces.

‘They flock into the mountains, into the jungles, for safety’

Many people living in small villages outside of Loikaw and Demoso opted to flee instead to uninhabited hills and jungles nearby. Although our Observer Aung stayed in Loikaw, his family members have all moved into the jungle.

People outside the city, from the villages, mostly ran into the jungle where they think the military can’t get access. They flocked into the mountains, into the jungle, for safety. But they had to forsake their homes and leave their villages, properties, and animals.

Those who are staying in the camps in the jungle are mostly the elderly, the sick, women and children. The men are staying in other places to defend them in case the military comes. Occasionally the men will go back to the village and fetch any supplies they need.

However, people living in these jungle encampments mainly depend on the few supplies they brought with them to survive. Aung shared photos of their makeshift accommodations with the FRANCE 24 Observers team.

At least 50,000 people from Loikaw and Demoso have fled their homes, according to Burmese media. A further 20,000 people from Pekhon and Moebyel towns in neighbouring Shan State have also reportedly gone into hiding. While it is impossible to confirm these figures, these groups are at risk of hunger and disease if they are not able to return to their villages soon, Aung says.

They brought food with them, they brought lodging materials all by themselves. They have been in the area already since May 22. I’m not sure it will be very good for them in the long run, they don’t have enough food. The rainy season is also coming, which could be very dangerous for them. Many people are getting sick now that they have been in the jungle for a few days. Some volunteers who are helping them are trying to get medicine for them.

Even short trips back into the city to fetch supplies and building materials have been dangerous. On May 26, two civilians were shot by military snipers while riding motorbikes. Burmese media said they were returning to their homes to find food to bring to families that had retreated into the hills.

Security forces remain a visible presence on the streets of Kayah State’s townships, according to Aung.

On the streets in Loikaw and Demoso, you can see soldiers and police everywhere. People are afraid to walk around and it’s dangerous for people who are travelling on the road. We see tanks throughout Loikaw. At nighttime, the tanks move and the soldiers march around. I also hear shooting in the city during the night. There was one night they were shooting for two hours, but just to frighten people and keep them quiet.

Security forces have set up roadblocks and regularly check the cell phones of people on the street for evidence of anti-junta sympathies, according to other witnesses on the ground contacted by the Observers team.

Other regions of Myanmar are experiencing similar conflicts between emerging resistance groups and the military junta. Around 10,000 residents from villages in the Sagaing region have fled their homes to avoid military attacks.

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