At least one-quarter of the people in Myanmar’s smallest state have been forced to flee their homes because of combat with the military junta that seized power in February, raising fears of a possible humanitarian tragedy including thousands of civilian deaths, a United Nations expert said Wednesday.
The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, called for international pressure on the junta to deprive it of the resources needed “to continue these brutal attacks on the people of Myanmar.”
“Mass deaths from starvation, disease and exposure could occur in Kayah state after many of the 100,000 forced to flee into forests from junta bombs are now cut off from food, water and medicine by the junta,” he said in remarks posted on Twitter.
Kayah State, also known as Karenni State, is in eastern Myanmar along the border with Thailand and has an estimated population of 350,000-400,000.
The U.N.’s office in Myanmar said in a statement Tuesday that people in Kayah are in urgent need of food, water, shelter, fuel and healthcare, and that “this crisis could push people across international borders seeking safety, as already seen in other parts of the country.” Villagers from the Karen minority south of Kayah fled to Thailand in March and April when they came under attack by Myanmar’s military.
The military, which ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced widespread opposition to its rule, initially by massive nonviolent protests. After soldiers and police used deadly force to crush the peaceful demonstrations, a low-level armed insurrection has emerged in both the cities and countryside.
According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 850 protesters and bystanders have been killed in the junta’s crackdown, though the government puts the death toll at about a third of that.
There has been fierce fighting in Kayah since May 21, when government forces moved into areas controlled by the state’s dominant political organization, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and its armed wing, the Karenni Army. The KNPP is one of about a dozen armed ethnic organizations that have been battling for decades for greater autonomy from the central government.
Andrews said he has received “credible reports of a major shortage of safe drinking water, severe diarrhea outbreaks, and a lack of adequate shelter” among Kayah’s displaced people. He said there were reports that the military had set up blockades that are keeping aid from reaching them.
An official for the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, a recently formed group fighting against the government, confirmed that there was an urgent need among the displaced people for protection during the current rainy season and for medicine.
The spokesman, who was contacted by phone from Thailand and declined to give his name for safety reasons, said there was not much fighting Wednesday, though occasional sounds of government heavy weapons could be heard.
The defense force is an outgrowth of the protest movement that began against military rule after the February takeover. The units were formed locally and now sometimes operate at the state level. They are loosely affiliated with an alternative National Unity Government established by elected lawmakers who were denied their seats in Parliament by the army coup.
The National Unity Government seeks recognition as Myanmar’s legitimate government, and has announced plans to unite the local defense forces into a federal army in alliance with the long-established ethnic rebel groups, who have provided the new groups with military training. The fighting in Kayah is believed to be the first in which a local defense force conducted joint operations with an ethnic guerrilla group.