JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – Before each rainy season, Lu Lu Aung and other farmers living in an IDP camp in the far northern state of Kachin in Myanmar will return to the village they fled and plant crops that will help them eat for the coming year.
But this year, as a result of the military coup in February, as the rains were not far away, farmers rarely left their makeshift homes and did not dare to leave their camp. They say it is simply too dangerous to risk colliding with soldiers from the Myanmar army or their militias.
The deadly military crackdown on protesters in major central cities such as Yangon and Mandalay has received much attention since the coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government. But far beyond Myanmar’s border areas, Lu Lu Aung and millions of others from Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups are facing growing insecurity and weakening security as long-running conflicts between minority military and guerrilla armies flare up again.
This was a situation that came to the fore last week when the military launched deadly airstrikes against ethnic Karen guerrillas in their homeland on the eastern border, displacing thousands and sending civilians fleeing to neighboring Thailand.
Several of the rebel armies have threatened to join forces if the killing of civilians does not stop, while a group of members of the ousted government floats the idea of creating a new army involving rebel groups. Meanwhile, the UN special envoy for Myanmar warned that the country was facing the possibility of a civil war.
Ethnic minorities make up about 40% of Myanmar’s 52 million people, but the central government and military leadership have long been dominated by the country’s ethnic majority. Since independence from Britain in 1948, more than a dozen ethnic groups have sought greater autonomy, some maintaining their own independent armies.
This contradicts Myanmar’s ultranationalist generals, who have long seen any surrender of territory – especially those in border areas that are often rich in natural resources – as tantamount to treason and relentlessly fighting rebel armies with only random periods of ceasefire.
The violence has led to allegations of abuse against all parties, such as arbitrary taxes on civilians and forced recruitment, and according to the United Nations alone, about 239,000 people have been displaced since 2011 alone. This does not include the more than 800,000 Rohingya minorities who fled to Bangladesh to escape a military campaign that the UN called ethnic cleansing.
Protests against the coup have taken place in every border state since February, and security forces have responded, as elsewhere, with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. But residents and observers say the situation has worsened since the coup in geographically isolated border areas due to intensified clashes between military and armed ethnic organizations fighting for power and territory.
Lu Lu Aung, who is from Kachin’s ethnic group, said she took part in the protests but stopped because it is now too dangerous. She said Myanmar’s security forces and organized militias had recently occupied their old village, where they had planted crops, and no one had left the camp because they feared they would be forced to work for the army.
“Our students can no longer continue to study and it is so difficult for adults to find a job and earn money,” she said.
Humanitarian aid for civilians in the borderlands – already strained by the pandemic, as well as the inherent difficulties outside the groups faced by those working in many areas – is also difficult after the coup.
Communications have been crippled, banks have been closed and security is becoming increasingly insecure, said the director of a Myanmar-based organization that supports displaced people who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“There is no more humanitarian aid and support,” she said.
In eastern Karen, where airstrikes have displaced thousands, there are fears that the arrival of a rainy season could worsen the humanitarian situation, which is already hampered by reports that Thailand has returned many of the escaped civilians. Thailand said those who returned to Myanmar had done so voluntarily.
Still, there are parts of the country’s border lands that have hardly been affected by the coup.
In the state of Wa, a region bordering China and Thailand that has its own governments, military and ceasefire agreements with the military in Myanmar, videos shared online show life going on as usual, including the spread of a vaccination campaign. against coronavirus.
Near Bangladesh in the coastal state of Rakhine, where the Rohingya were expelled and where clashes with the Arakan army group have continued for years, the junta removed the group from its list of terrorist groups last month, raising hopes of reducing hostilities. Arakan’s army, unlike a number of other armed groups, had not criticized the coup.
Since then, however, the group has issued a statement declaring its right to defend its territory and civilians against military attacks, leading some to fear a new escalation in the fighting.
Other armed groups have issued similar statements. Some, such as Karen’s National Union, have provided protection for civilians marching in protest of the coup.
Such actions have contributed to calls for a “federal army” uniting armed ethnic groups from across the country. But analysts say such a vision would be difficult to achieve due to logistical challenges and political differences between the groups.
“These groups are unable to provide the support against the Myanmar army needed in urban centers with large populations, or indeed too far outside their own regions,” said Ronan Lee, a visiting scientist at Queen Mary University of London’s State Crime Initiative.
Despite uncertainty about what lies ahead, some minority activists say they have been reassured by the coup’s heightened focus on the role ethnic groups can play in Myanmar’s future. They also say there seems to be a greater understanding – at least among protesters against the coup – of the struggle that minorities have faced for so long.
“If there’s any silver lining in all of this, that’s all,” said one activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about their safety.