MAE SARIANG, Thailand – Thousands of ethnic Karen villagers in Myanmar are poised to cross into Thailand if, as expected, fighting intensifies between the Myanmar army and Karen insurgents, joining those who have already escaped the turmoil that followed a Feb. 1 coup.
Karen rebels and the Myanmar army have clashed near the Thai border in the weeks since Myanmar's generals ousted an elected government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, displacing villagers on both sides of the border.
"People say the Burmese will come and shoot us, so we fled here," said Chu Wah, a Karen villager who crossed over to Thailand with his family this week from the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp in Myanmar.
"I had to flee across the river," Chu Wah said, referring to the Salween river that forms the border in the area.
The Karen Peace Support Network says thousands of villagers are taking shelter on the Myanmar side of the Salween and they will flee to Thailand if the fighting escalates.
"In coming days, more than 8,000 Karen along the Salween river will have to flee to Thailand. We hope that the Thai army will help them escape the war," the group said in a post on Facebook.
Karen fighters on Tuesday overran a Myanmar army unit on the west bank of the Salween in a pre-dawn attack. The Karen said 13 soldiers and three of their fighters were killed. The Myanmar military responded with air strikes in several areas near the Thai border.
A spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry said 2,267 civilians had crossed into Thailand as of early Friday since the latest round of conflict began. Thailand has reinforced its forces and restricted access to the border.
The inhabitants of two Thai villages close to the border have also been displaced, ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat told a briefing, with 220 people seeking refuge deeper in Thai territory for safety.
"The situation has escalated so we can't go back," said Warong Tisakul, 33, a Thai villager from Mae Sam Laep, a settlement, now abandoned, opposite the Myanmar army post attacked this week.
"Security officials won't let us, we can't go back."
Heavy clashes have also been taking place in the north of Myanmar between government forces and ethnic Kachin insurgents.
Media reported heavy casualties among government troops in recent days but a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Army insurgent group said he could not confirm any figures.
"There will be casualties on both sides as there's fighting," the spokesman, Naw Bu, said by telephone.
The Karen, Kachin and several other insurgent groups have come out in support of the pro-democracy protesters who have been taking to the streets in towns and cities across the country to oppose the return of military rule.
The security forces have killed at least 759 protesters since the coup, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group says. Reuters is unable to confirm the casualty toll.
The military has acknowledged the death of some protesters, killed after they initiated violence, it says. Several members of the security forces have been killed in the protests, the military says.
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