11 July 2024

Yangon, Myanmar –  Ethnic minority fighters clashed with Myanmar’s military on a major trade route to Thailand on Friday, blocking traffic and sending people fleeing, residents and local media said. 

Fighters from the Karen National Union (KNU) fought with the military at dawn in the town of Kawkareik in eastern Karen state, according to local media reports.  The town sits on the Asia Highway that links the trade hub of Myawaddy on the Thai border with Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon.

Video from Kawkareik uploaded to social media showed around a dozen trucks parked up and a plume of smoke billowing into the sky as people took shelter. AFP digital verification reporters have geo-located the video, which has not appeared online before.

A resident of Kyondoe, a town about 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of Kawkareik along the highway, reported hearing artillery fire from nearby military bases since Thursday night.

“I saw jet fighters coming as well,” said the resident, who did not want to be named for security reasons.  “Residents from our Kyondoe town are fleeing. Very few men are left behind to take care of our houses.

“But since we saw jet fighters flying, we are now preparing to leave as well.”

Myanmar has more than a dozen ethnic minority armed groups, many of which hold territory in the country’s border regions and have battled the military since independence from Britain in 1948.

Following the coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government in February 2021, dozens of “People’s Defence Force” groups have also sprung up to fight the junta.

PDF fighters have conducted operations alongside troops from the KNU, including an assault on Kawkareik town last year.

The Asia Highway between Yangon and Myawaddy has been blocked regularly over decades of fighting between the military and the KNU.

Myawaddy was the second busiest of Myanmar’s six official border trade crossings with Thailand from April to November this year, according to Myanmar’s commerce ministry, handling almost a billion dollars of imports and exports.

Myanmar’s two busiest trade hubs on its northern border with China have also been blocked since last month by a separate offensive by ethnic minority fighters in Shan state.

The blockages have choked cross-border commerce and denied the cash-strapped junta taxes and foreign exchange.