Although more than 16,000 Karen people were sheltering at close quarters in Mae La Oon refugee camp, the night was silent. Among the shadows of the banana trees, the moonlight flickered across the river.
Suddenly, the whiz of a mortar shell arcs across the sky like a shooting star. For a second there is a vacuum of silence, then the resounding boom of an explosion rocks the northern Thai jungle. The heavens are instantly illuminated as gunfire and artillery consume the area.
It was 9:30 pm on Jan. 17. The fighting between Burmese government forces and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) was taking place about 30 km from the camp, on Kasaw Wah Lay Mountain, opposite Thailand’s Sop Moei District.
We heard the echo of artillery shells thundering across the valley until 10:30 pm. Some households in the camp had already packed their belongings in case the shelling came any closer and they had to flee.
I rushed to a hut where the camp security guards were based. Through their walkie-talkies and satellite phones, we found out that the fighting was going on around Noh Day, Kasaw Wah Lay and the former Karen National Union (KNU) headquarters, Manerplaw.
Several refugees told me they have had to endure this every night since mid-December. Now I was experiencing it for myself. I could barely fathom what it must be like to get woken up by these thunderous explosions on a nightly basis.
The camp authorities announced on loudspeakers that everyone should be alert and to pack their valuables. People lingered near the underground bunkers that had been dug in case of such an emergency.
A few days earlier, three Burmese soldiers were arrested inside Mae La Oon refugee camp and later expelled. Rumors were spreading that spies for the Burmese military regime had been deployed in Mae La Oon and at Mae Ra Ma Luang, another refugee camp close by.
Karen sources on the border said that an estimated eight battalions around Kasaw Wah Lay Mountain had been recently reinforced; meanwhile, KNU Brigade 5 was recruiting in the local area.
KNU sources said a small group of Burmese troops at Kasaw Wah Lay had been cut off from their unit and were unable to receive rations and supplies. The Thai border authorities have reportedly provided rations in recent weeks to other Burmese troops.
The fighting is expected to escalate as both the KNU and the Burmese army beef up their forces in the combat zone.
Thailand has also deployed a unit of soldiers to Sop Moei District after mortar shells landed in a Thai village on the night of Nov. 17.
Several refugees said they fear that the Burmese army can fire down on the camp from Kasaw Wah Lay Mountain. Many said they are praying for a cease-fire.
“We fed up with the fighting. We want to live in peace,” said Si Mon, a housewife in Mae La Oon refugee camp.
“We don’t go to big cities like Rangoon and attack them [the Burmese] and try to take over their land,” said Saw Htee, a former KNU fighter. “We don’t want their land. We don’t want armed conflict. We fight them because they come here and attack us. They come to our land and try to oppress our people.”
The KNU’s war with the Burmese army is one of the world’s longest running conflicts. The insurgent group was formed in 1947 and took up arms against the central Burmese government in 1949, just one year after Burma had gained independence from British colonial rule.
Decades of repression by the Burmese regime has resulted in more than 150,000 Burmese refugees, mostly Karen, displaced to refugee camps in Thailand.
Many refugees ultimately decide to resettle in third countries. Some 60,000 Karen refugees have been resettled in the West, according to a humanitarian aid agency, Thailand Burma Border Consortium.
Having lived in a refugee camp for more than a decade, Si Mon said that she always expected to return to her village in Karen State. However, she is now on the UNHCR list as waiting to resettle in the US as she has given up all hope of ever seeing her hometown ever again.
On Nov. 8, one day after Burma’s general election, serious fighting erupted between Burmese troops and a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Brigade 5. The conflict has since spread north.
With an estimated 1,000 troops, Brigade 5 is led by Brig-Gen Saw Lah Pwe, and is the only DKBA battalion to reject the Burmese junta’s border guard force plan. It has since allied with the KNU. On Nov. 17, a group of about 40 soldiers belong to a Karen breakaway group called Klow Htoo Baw also returned to KNU Brigade 6 areas.
Local residents in Kyaukkyi Township in Pegu Division said that fighting between the KNU and Burmese government forces broke out near the town on Jan. 11.