Clashes near Myawaddy displace thousands of civilians to Thailand

The battles took place near Shwe Kokko, the site of a major development project partly owned by the junta-allied general secretary of Karen State’s Border Guard Force

Junta forces continued to battle the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and their allies this week near the town of Shwe Kokko, north of Myawaddy, Karen State, forcing thousands of locals to flee to the Thai border.

Several Border Guard Force (BGF) outposts near the Shwe Kokko-Yatai New City development project came under attack by KNLA and allied forces on Wednesday, leading to ongoing clashes, according to officials of the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU). 

The Lion Battalion Commando Special Force, a resistance group involved in the attacks, released a video on Thursday night along with a statement saying that some 80 members of the military and BGF were killed in the fighting, and another 60 injured. The video showed arms and equipment seized from the military and BGF forces.

Shwe Kokko, located on the Thai-Myanmar border, is the site of the Shwe Kokko-Yatai New City development project. The project is operated as a partnership between Brig- Gen Saw Chit Thu, head of the junta-allied BGF in Karen State, and Yatai International Holdings Group, a Chinese company registered in Hong Kong.

Largely financed by Chinese and other foreign investors, the project faced significant opposition during the civilian administration of the National League of Democracy (NLD) and was put on hold in 2020 following a government inquiry into its business practices. 

However, the project resumed operations after the 2021 military coup and has become notorious for scandals involving labour abuse and trafficking, the victims of which included foreign workers recruited from abroad, especially within online gambling facilities operating in the town.

Displaced people crossing the Thaungyin (Moei) River on Wednesday (Supplied)

While the recent fighting is known to have caused casualties among the KNLA and allied resistance forces, the details are still unknown, according to Padoh Saw Liston, the district secretary of KNLA Brigade 6.

“We heard that there were several casualties on our side but we still don’t know the details as things are very complicated in Kawkareik, Thingan Nyi Naung, Myawaddy and Shwe Kokko,” Padoh Saw Liston said on Thursday, referring to the towns near which battles have occurred in recent weeks. 

The KNLA-allied resistance forces attacked BGF outposts in Hti Kaw Htaw village, located 6 miles from Shwe Kokko, on Wednesday. The military targeted the area with heavy artillery shelling and airstrikes during the ensuing battle.

The air and artillery strikes forced more than 6,000 residents of Hti Kaw Htaw and nearby villages on the Thaungyin (Moei) River to flee to the Thai-Myanmar border as of Wednesday.

Displaced people that crossed the border into Thailand are now sheltering on three acres of land owned by a local Thai woman and receiving aid from the Thai military and other authorities, according to a person assisting with the process. 

“We could hear heavy artillery shells going off, and the battles were still going on this morning,” the individual said. 

Bodies of BGF members killed in battle, in an image shared widely on social media on Friday

Allied KNLA and PDF forces operating in KNU territory announced today that part of the Asia Highway connecting Myawaddy and Kawkareik will be closed for two weeks due to ongoing clashes and the military sending reinforcements in civilian vehicles. As the highway is crucial for the border trade between Thailand and Myanmar, many commercial trucks had to turn back on Friday, according to a businessman familiar with the matter. 

During a speech at an Armed Forces Day ceremony in Naypyidaw on March 27, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing said that the military would take decisive action against the publicly mandated and anti-junta National Unity Government, the People’s Defence Forces, and the ethnic armed organisations aiding them. Battlesbroke out in Karen State shortly afterwards. 

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, a spokesperson for the KNU, said that there were now around 500,000 internally displaced people in Karen State due to the ongoing fighting. 

Myanmar Now News