Turmoil Deepens in Myanmar; Military, Armed Groups Continue to Fight as Thailand’s Concerns Grow

Courtesy of a local resident
Myanmar people cross a river running along the Myanmar-Thailand border as they flee to Mae Sot in western Thailand on April 20.

MAE SOT, Thailand — Six months have passed since full-scale fighting erupted in Myanmar between the country’s military and armed ethnic minority groups. In Myawaddy, a major city near the border with Thailand, fighting rages on as the military and the armed groups advance and retreat. The turmoil in Myanmar is deepening under the country’s military regime.

“Having a relative who’s a solider, I’ve always been prepared for the worst. But I still can’t believe he’s dead,” a woman, 34, from Myawaddy who attended the funeral of her cousin, 39, on Friday said, choking back tears.

Her cousin was fighting on the front lines as a member of the pro-democracy forces when he was shot in the neck and killed in a firefight with the Myanmar military in the eastern state of Kayin on April 20. Fighting between ethnic minority armed groups and the military has continued for years. Following the 2021 coup, pro-democracy armed groups joined the fight on the side of the ethnic minorities.

Residents in Mae Sot in western Thailand, an area close to where the firefight took place, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that they heard constant gunfire and saw helicopters bombing the area on April 20. News of bullets flying over to the Mae Sot side further intensified the situation. The Thai government said about 3,000 Myanmar citizens fled to Mae Sot to escape the conflict.

In the state of Kayin in Myanmar, fighting between the military and resistance forces has intensified since April. When the Karen National Union, or KNU, an armed group based in the state, declared control of Myawaddy on April 11, the military dispatched 1,000 soldiers to the area and carried out heavy airstrikes. According to The Irrawaddy, a local independent media outlet, at least seven civilians were killed in the April 20 airstrikes. The KNU then announced a “temporary withdrawal” from Myawaddy on April 24.

Myawaddy is one of Myanmar’s key trading hubs. “If the KNU can fully control Myawaddy, the junta would lose a huge amount of money from trade over the border. Also, the junta would be worried about us getting weapons easily,” Saw Taw Nee, a senior KNU official told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “Those may be the reasons that the junta is striking us hard.”

Full-scale fighting between the military and armed groups was ignited on Oct. 27 last year when three armed groups, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army based in the northeastern state of Shan, launched a large-scale attack on the military’s strongholds. Fierce fighting spread to other areas in the country, and conflict has continued not only in the state of Kayin but also the western state of Rakhine and the northwestern city of Sagaing.

The military has been plagued with a serious shortage of soldiers due to desertions and other circumstances, putting it on the back foot in various areas. The military’s announcement in February that it would start conscripting citizens aged 18 and older has accelerated the exodus from the country.

The number of internally displaced people is also rapidly increasing in the country. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of internally displaced people has reached 2,658,400 as of April 22, up about 60% from October last year.

Thailand alarmed, concerned

Thailand is increasingly alarmed by the escalation of fighting near its border with Myanmar.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in an April 20 post on X expressed concern over the clashes near the border and said he did not want them to affect Thailand.

On April 23, the Thai government set up a special committee to discuss the potential impacts of the situation in Myanmar, including measures for refugees. Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, Interior Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang and others later visited Mae Sot and inspected the border area. The following day, the Thai government proposed that Laos, which chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, holds a special meeting to resolve the Myanmar issue.