Fighting erupts in Myanmar; junta to ‘consider’ ASEAN plan

Fires (L) are seen on a forested hillside in Myanmar as shots are heard in the distance, as seen across the Salween river from Mae Sam Laep, a border outpost in northwestern Thailand

Fighting erupted in eastern Myanmar near the Thai border early on Tuesday as ethnic minority Karen insurgents attacked an army outpost in some of the most intense clashes since a Feb. 1 coup plunged Myanmar into crisis.

The clash came as the junta, in an apparent setback for an attempt by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end Myanmar’s turmoil, said it would “positively” consider the bloc’s suggestions made at a weekend meeting in Indonesia.

Southeast Asian leaders said on the weekend they had reached a consensus with the junta on steps to end violence and promote dialogue between the rival Myanmar sides.

The Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest rebel force, said it had captured the army camp on the west bank of the Salween river, which forms the border with Thailand in the area.

Villagers on the Thai side of the river said heavy gunfire started before sunrise. Video posted on social media showed flames and smoke on the forested hillside.

KNU forces had taken the outpost at around 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. (2230 to 2330 GMT), the group’s head of foreign affairs, Saw Taw Nee, told Reuters.

He said the camp had been occupied and burned down and that the group was still checking on deaths and casualties. The spokesman said there had been fighting elsewhere too, but did not give details.

The Karen Information Center media group said the army base had been overrun. It said villagers had seen seven soldiers running away.

Myanmar’s army made no immediate comment. It historically proclaimed itself the one institution that can keep together the ethnically diverse country of more than 53 million people, though much of Myanmar has rallied in opposition to its coup.

The army base at the Thai border had been largely surrounded by KNU forces and food had run short there in recent weeks, said Thai villagers who had contact with the soldiers.

A Thai official in Mae Hong Son province said one person had been lightly wounded in Thailand during the fighting.

The KNU agreed to a ceasefire in 2012, ending its insurgency for autonomy that began shortly after Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948.

But its forces have clashed with the army since the latter seized power and cut short a decade of democratic reforms that had also brought relative peace to Myanmar’s borderlands.

Fighting has also flared in the north and west, where the Irrawaddy news site said 13 security forces were killed in clashes over the past few days.

‘CAREFUL CONSIDERATION’

About 24,000 people are sheltering in the jungle after being displaced in recent weeks by violence near the Thai border, including military air strikes, Karen groups say.

Myanmar’s main ethnic minority forces based in frontier regions have supported the largely urban-based pro-democracy opponents of the junta, whose security forces have killed more than 750 civilians protesting against the coup, an activist group says.

Elsewhere in Myanmar, there have been few reports of bloodshed since the weekend meeting between junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and Southeast Asian leaders to try to find a way out of the crisis.

The junta, in its first official comment on the meeting, said it would give “careful consideration to constructive suggestions … when the situation returns to stability”.

The suggestions would be “positively considered” if they facilitated the junta’s own “roadmap”, and “serves the interests of the country and was based on purposes and principles enshrined in” ASEAN, it said in a statement.

The junta did not refer to one of ASEAN’s long-cherished principles, that of non-interference in each other’s affairs.

After the meeting, ASEAN issued a so-called five-point consensus on steps to end the violence and initiate talks between the Myanmar rivals.

Activists have criticised the plan, saying it helped to legitimise the junta and fell far short of their demands.

In particular, it did not specifically call for the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, and other political prisoners. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group says more than 3,400 people have been detained for opposing the coup.

Suu Kyi’s party won a second term in November. The election commission said the vote was fair but the military said fraud at the polls had forced it to seize power.

Myanmar media said at least one man was shot dead in the city of Mandalay on Monday. The circumstances were unclear.

Protesters have vowed to step up action against the junta and have called on people to stop paying electricity bills and farm loans and keep their children away from school.

Protesters were out in several places, including the main city of Yangon, where hundreds staged a “flash mob” march down a street chanting slogans and holding banners, images on social media showed.

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