A long-simmering conflict has worsened since the 2021 coup.
Three weeks of fierce fighting between junta troops and ethnic Karenni forces in eastern Myanmar has killed at least 35 civilians, including three children, a domestic human rights group and local residents said.
Karenni militias have been battling the military for decades in their campaign for greater autonomy in Kayah and Shan states, but the conflict has worsened in recent months as the Burmese army targets People’s Defense Force fighters who have taken up arms against the military since the 2021 coup.
The two sides have been engaged in armed conflict in Moebye – also known as Mongpai – township in southern Shan state since May 25.
Among those who died were more than 20 men and 10 women, as well as three minors aged eight, 13 and 18, according to Karenni Human Rights Group.
Banyar, executive director of the Karenni Human Rights Group, said that the victims were killed by heavy artillery or because they caught fire as they were trapped in the middle of the fighting.
“They were either killed in the town of Moebye, hit by heavy artillery or shot to death, Banyar, the group’s executive director, told Radio Free Asia on Monday. “Some of them were arrested before being killed. Some were shot at. Some were killed as heavy artillery shelling hit them.”
The organization collected 12 dead bodies and buried them during the first week of June, though some corpses still cannot be collected on account of security issues, Banyar said.
The latest round of civilian deaths comes as the military steps up attacks on its adversaries in the southern Shan and Kayah state townships of Moebye, Pinlaung and Pekon.
Junta forces have conducted airstrikes and heavy artillery assaults on areas where fighters from the Progressive Karenni People’s Force, or PKPF – a local offshoot of the anti-regime People’s Defense Forces – are believed to be, killing civilians in the process.
Relief workers have had difficulties helping the injured and collecting dead bodies because junta troops are everywhere in Moebye, arresting and killing locals, said aid worker Nwe Oo said.
“I’ve heard that there are injured people in Si Kar and Done Tu Htan wards in town, but because we haven’t had a chance to go in, we haven’t been able to bring them out,” she said. “We have to be very vigilant as the fighting has been intense and complicated.”
To make matters worse, junta forces have blocked some roads in Moebye and have kept open a main road for pedestrian use, she said.
A Moebye resident, who declined to be named for safety reasons, said military troops fired heavy artillery into residential areas.
“We heard gunshot exchanges and artillery fire non-stop last night,” he said, estimating that about 450 junta soldiers have been stationed in high-rise buildings, schools and residential homes.
The resident said three members of a friend’s family were killed on the spot with heavy artillery as they hid in a bomb shelter.
“Because telephone communication has not been reliable, there is no way we will be able to leave the town,” he said.
The junta has not yet issued any statements about the situation in Moebye. RFA could not reach Khun Thein Maung, Shan state’s economic minister and junta spokesman, for comment.
A PKPF official told RFA there have been casualties on both sides in the fighting, and some civilians are still caught up in it.
There have been many casualties among members of the People’s Defense Forces and the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, an armed insurgent group formed after the 2021 military coup, and among junta troops who have been firing heavy artillery non-stop, the official said.
“Some civilians have been trapped in town,” he said. “Some people have taken refuge in the monastery because they thought they would be safe there. We heard that some of them managed to sneak out of town, but we don’t know how exactly they escaped.”
More than 50 civilians, including 13 children under the age of 18, died in Moebye between February 2021, when the military seized power from the elected government, and this June 12, according to PKPF figures.
Moebye has a population of about 30,000 people. Some residents remain in about three of the township’s 10 wards, while the rest have fled the fighting.