23 May 2024

Yangon, Myanmar – Residents of a Myanmar trade hub fled across the border to Thailand on Tuesday amid the sounds of explosions and after an ethnic minority armed group said they had seized a key military base nearby, locals told AFP.

Fighters from the Karen National Union (KNU) said Saturday that they had seized a military base around 10 kilometres (6 miles) west of Myawaddy and that more than 600 soldiers, police and their families had surrendered.

Contacted by AFP on Tuesday, residents said they could hear gunfire and explosions.

“Some people fled already, especially those staying around the police station,” one resident told AFP, requesting anonymity for security reasons.

“We are hearing gunfire and explosions at this moment. We heard planes flying over.”

They said it did not appear KNU fighters were inside the town and that a bridge connecting Myawaddy to the Thai town of Mae Sot just over the border was still open.

“I heard two loud explosions”, another resident of Myawaddy told AFP, also asking to remain anonymous for security reasons.

“Most of the shops are closed today and locals are leaving for Thailand.”

Myanmar mobile phone services were not working, they said, adding that residents were using Thai SIM cards.

The junta has not responded to requests for comment on the KNU claim of the surrenders at the base at Thingannyinaung.

AFP has asked the KNU for comment.

A resident of Thingannyinaung said she had fled her home weeks ago following previous clashes and was now sheltering at the Thai border.

“Many IDPs are now staying near the river between Thailand and Myanmar,” she said, referring to internally displaced people.

“We can see thousands of people from villages are coming to cross the border every day,” added the resident, who requested anonymity.

Thailand’s foreign minister said on Tuesday the country was prepared to accept 100,000 people fleeing Myanmar, as reports of clashes emerged.

Thailand shares a 2,400-kilometre (1,490-mile) border with Myanmar, which has been embroiled in a civil war since the junta overthrew the democratically elected government in 2021.

Myawaddy sits on the Asia Highway that runs from the Thai border to Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon.

It passes through Karen state, which has been riven by decades of fighting between the military and the KNU, which says it is seeking autonomy for the Karen population.

Since the military’s 2021 coup, the KNU has given shelter to political opponents of the junta and trained newer “People’s Defence Forces” battling to overthrow the military’s rule.

Over $1.1 billion worth of trade passed through Myawaddy from April 1, 2023 to March 31, 2024, according to the junta’s commerce ministry.

The Karen State Border Guard Force, a local military-aligned militia that controls much of Myawaddy town, announced this year that it would no longer take orders from the junta.

Analysts said the move would further weaken the military’s position in Karen state.

Agence France-Presse