Myo Min Soe / Irrawaddy

Burma Army Officers Pressure Karen State IDPs to Return Home Amid Fighting

Lawi Weng The Irrawaddy

Burma Army officers tried to convince displaced ethnic Karen on Thursday to return to their villages, despite continuous daily fighting in Karen State’s Mae Tha Waw area, The Irrawaddy has learned.

One officer, commander of Infantry Division 22, and another, the tactical commander of Infantry Division 44, met hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs) seeking refuge within the compound of a Buddhist monastery in Myaing Gyi Ngu, Hlaing Baw Township. They told the IDPs that the areas they had fled were, in fact, stable, and encouraged them to return to their homes.

In total, more than 3,800 people have been uprooted since Sept. 9 by fighting between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Burma Army, who are aided by the allied Border Guard Force (BGF).

Among the crowd were 30 additional families who had just arrived that day after escaping fighting in the area of Ba Thraw village.

The Irrawaddy overheard a conversation between a displaced Karen village head and the Tatmadaw officer from the 44th Division.

“They are enjoying their food here, so they don’t want to go home, right?” the tactical commander said.

The village head replied that this was not the case—that the people in his community were “too afraid” to return to their land.

Nay Lin Htet, who is managing the makeshift camp inside the monastery, told The Irrawaddy that any decision to go back to their homes should be made by the displaced people themselves, rather than due to pressure from above.

“They are saying the areas are stable, but we do not know whether it’s true or not,” he said of the army representatives, pointing out that villagers “would rather stay in their own houses,” and would do so if it were possible.

Until then, Nay Lin Htet added, he would do his best to make sure they are taken care of.

“If they keep staying here […] we will continue to help them,” Nay Lin Htet said, pointing out that the Karen State government had donated food to support the displaced; since it is a monastery, all meals are vegetarian.

A nurse, who is treating injured and sick IDPs in the Myaing Gyi Ngu monastery, found the officers’ pressure disingenuous. “They were the people who created the problem,” she said of the Burma Army. “It is not true what they said.”

Maj. Naing Maung Zaw from the Karen BGF argued that it was riskier to stay in the monastery.

“Their property will destroyed if they abandon their homes and villages for a long time,” he said, insisting that the area had been secured.

The Irrawaddy observed some people leaving the monastery by car and motorbike, as well as in army trucks, but learned that they were relocating in order to stay with relatives in other, safer areas, rather than returning home. When the military transport discovered that the IDPs were not going back to their own homes, they asked them to disembark.

Infantry Division 22 has set up an outpost on the nearby Salween River. A further two hours away, fighting continues in Mae Tha Waw. The road out of Myaing Gyi Ngu used to reach Myawaddy, on the Thai border, but the road is now blocked as skirmishes continue to break out along it, making it difficult to leave the country.