Karen villagers, injured during air strikes in the area following the February military coup, resting after receiving medical treatment while taking shelter in a jungle near Day Pu No in Hpa-pun in eastern Myanmar’s Karen state. – AFP

MAE SUAT, Thailand: Civilians wounded in Myanmar air strikes on rebel positions spoke of their terrifying ordeal after trekking through jungle to seek medical treatment across the border in Thailand. Military jets hit targets in eastern Kayin state over the weekend, as Myanmar reeled from the deadliest day so far in the junta’s crackdown on anti-coup protests.

The strikes targeted territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the nation’s largest ethnic armed groups, which had earlier seized a military base. They marked the Myanmar military’s first use of air strikes against the KNU in 20 years and sent around 7,000 Karen villagers fleeing for safety, according to the armed group.

Naw Eh Tah, one of a handful who managed to cross the Salween River-which marks the border with Thailand-on Tuesday to seek medical treatment, described the moment the bombs hit. “We didn’t hear the plane-if we did, we would have run,” the 18-year-old told AFP at the small Sop Moei district hospital in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province. “By the time I realized what was happening, the explosion hit the roof of my house. “When I got hit, I couldn’t walk-I had to climb to hide.”

‘Bombs dropped so quickly’
Her legs lacerated by shrapnel, Naw Eh Tah trekked for a day through dense tropical jungle to the river. “We crossed because I can’t stay-the Myanmar army is all trying to get us,” she said. “I have never seen it (air strikes) before. I am so afraid.” The youngest to cross on Tuesday, a 15-year-old, was also the most seriously hurt, with a broken rib and collapsed lung. Saw Lab Bray, 48, suffered shrapnel wounds all over his body when he was hit in KNU stronghold Day Puh Noh.

“I tried to run away but the bombs dropped so quickly,” he told AFP from a hospital wheelchair, describing how he saw six people wounded and a man die. “I fell on my side and was coughing blood. I’m afraid because I cannot run, I cannot move.” Doctor Chakri Komsakorm said the refugees looked like “they have been through war” with many shrapnel wounds becoming infected due to a lack of medicine.

He added that “many appear to have been starving for many days”. Chakri also said he had heard there were people with more serious wounds still trapped on the Myanmar side of the river, unable to cross because of the severity of their injuries. Karen groups say as many as 3,000 people fled across the river into Thailand after the air strikes before being sent back to Myanmar, though Thai officials insist they were not forced back. The Thai foreign ministry said late Tuesday about 2,300 have returned to Myanmar and about 550 remain in Thailand.

‘Guns and sticks’
Mae Hong Son Governor Sithichai Jindaluang told a news conference that refugees who had not been badly affected by the bombings agreed to go back when asked. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said they had not been “scared off with guns or sticks” and insisted the kingdom would not turn people away if the situation worsened. The air strikes came as the junta struggles to quell nationwide protests demanding a restoration of the elected government and the release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, ousted in the February 1 coup.

Some 50 Myanmar refugees who fled air strikes to neighboring Thailand “voluntarily” returned across the border yesterday, Thai authorities said, despite reports of continued bombings in their home state. Myanmar’s military has launched air attacks in eastern Karen state for four straight days-the first such strikes in the area in more than 20 years-forcing 7,000 people to flee their homes.

The junta’s attacks targeted territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed groups which had earlier seized a military base. The group has also been publicly critical of the military coup and is sheltering hundreds of anti-coup activists in their territory since security forces started deploying lethal weapons to quell nationwide protests.

Over the weekend, some 3,000 ethnic Karen people fled the bombings into Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. Authorities said yesterday a small group who escaped fighting was ferried back across the Salween River, which marks the border between the two nations. “A group of 56 people who escaped fighting have voluntarily crossed back into Myanmar by five mid-sized boats… by 9.50 am,” said a notice released by provincial authorities. Another 201 refugees who had also agreed to the “voluntary return” remain on the Thai side.

“Most of them are children, women, elderly and patients who will return to Myanmar,” the notice said, without specifying when they will make the crossing. A first large batch of refugees-about 2,300 — had already returned to Myanmar earlier this week. A Karen human rights activist told AFP that Thai authorities had pushed the people back and accused them of blocking UN refugee officials from the area. – AFP