More than two-thirds of residents in the capital of Myanmar’s Kayah (Karenni) state have been displaced by fighting since last week, when the military escalated attacks on anti-junta forces in the region, a local official said Tuesday.
Aung San Myint, a spokesman for the Karenni State Consultative Council, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that more than 90,000 people had been living in Loikaw in recent weeks after some 30,000 residents of nearby Demawso and Prueso fled their home townships to seek shelter in Kayah’s capital.
But on Jan. 6, troops loyal to the military regime fired heavy weapons and sent tanks and helicopters into Loikaw to battle joint forces of the ethnic Karenni Army and the prodemocracy People’s Defense Force and Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF), sparking another exodus.
At least 60,000 people who had been living in Loikaw fled, with many of the refugees crossing the border into neighboring southern Shan state in search of safety, he said.
“Most of the residents left the town for Shan state after rumors spread during the past three days that the military would bomb the city,” Aung San Myint said. “Some are seeking refuge within the state — especially those from Demawso and Prueso townships. So only about one-third of the population is left in town, and they are living in fear.”
Residents told RFA that they are mostly headed for the Shan state townships of Taunggyi, Hsisaing, Pinlaung, Inlay and surrounding areas and are seeking temporary shelter in monasteries with the help of local civil society groups. Some are staying with relatives, while others have set up makeshift camps in the nearby forests and mountains of Kayah state, they said.
One woman who fled from Mong Lone ward in Loikaw said she had to leave her home because there was no security left in the town.
“We had to face a lot of difficulties — it wasn’t easy to decide whether to stay in town or leave,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “The army began firing heavy weapons now and then, and finally we had to flee.”
Another woman who fled said people were being permitted to enter Shan state only after submitting to questioning along the way by government soldiers at around six different checkpoints.
“We had to pass through several inspection points,” said the woman, who also declined to be named.
“It took a very long time at some points as there were a lot of vehicles on the road. They checked every car; how many women and men were in the cars. We had to pass through five or six such gates.”
Residents said that at least six civilians have been killed in the five days of fighting since Jan. 6.
When asked about the exodus of civilians in Loikaw, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the situation “would not have occurred if they didn’t attack us,” referring to the joint anti-junta forces.
“All of this started when they attacked a plane carrying passengers and COVID vaccines at Loikaw Airport,” he said, without elaborating.
“If there are [displaced persons], the [junta] will work for their security and stability and make efforts to resettle them.”
Zaw Min Tun denied claims by the KNDF that it had shot down an Air Force helicopter in recent days. In a Monday statement, the KNDF had also warned the public to take safety measures as the junta “is likely to carry out more airstrikes” in Demawso and Loikaw townships.
‘Nowhere else to flee’
Fighting between the military and anti-junta forces erupted on May 21, forcing residents of Demawso and Phruso townships to flee to relatives’ homes in other villages and towns, as well as nearby refugee camps.
Residents said Loikaw is now the third city in Kayah state whose inhabitants have been forced to flee en masse. They said more than half of Kayah’s population of 300,000 has been displaced by fighting since the military seized power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup.
A spokesman from the Progressive Karenni People’s Movement said residents of Kayah are likely to face more difficulties if military tensions continue.
“During earlier fighting, government soldiers as well as some bad elements looted houses and took away farm animals, various household things, etc. It was a very difficult situation for residents,” he said.
“If this military tension goes on unchecked, I dare not think what might come next. Our Kayah state is so small and there’s nowhere else to flee.”
Sources estimate that in December alone, more than 40,000 people were displaced in Kayah and Kayin states as well as in Sagaing and Magway regions. Those displaced by the recent fighting join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups who were already counted as displaced at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.