Residents forced to flee symbolic peace town
28 Aug 2022
Violence, Airstrikes, Displacement and Refugees in Lay Kay Kaw - December 2021
Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) in Kayin (ကရင်) State, once designated a ‘town of peace’, has been the site of violent clashes between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Union (KNU), since December 2021. Instead of providing a site of refuge to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), returning refugees and KNU families, fighting in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) has forced many residents to flee for their lives.
This is the first in a series of reports that document events in the region. It provides a detailed chronological reconstruction of the clashes between the military and oppositional forces between 13 and 28 December 2021.
Myanmar Witness has assessed claims found on social media and within Burmese news media that the military are responsible for the conflict in the region in this period. This includes allegations that the military used excessive force, including heavy artillery within civilian areas; has undertaken potentially unjustified arrests and; incited violence and fighting.
By the end of December 2021, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the violence had caused the mass displacement of up to 4,600 people. Many casualties have been reported, including at least one non-combatant journalist between 15-28 December 2022. The location of this violence is particularly contentious as it lies at the border with Thailand, placing a strain on cross-border relations.
Myanmar Witness believes with high likelihood that the Myanmar military were present in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) during December. There is evidence to suggest that they were responsible for the violent clashes, and also for the resultant displacement of civilians, some of which crossed the border into Thailand. Violent clashes have since continued in this area, leading to further displacement and destruction. This will be explored further in forthcoming reports.
Background and Context
‘Town of Peace’
Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) is located in Myawaddy (မြဝတီ) Township, Kayin (ကရင်) State, close to the border with Thailand (Figure 1). In 2015, the Burmese government and KNU established Lay Kay Kaw as a ‘town of peace’. The town was set up as a post-conflict reconstruction partnership between the Myanmar government and the KNU, forming part of the country’s wider peace process. It signalled the end to decades of fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic Karen armed groups.
Following a request for external funding by the Myanmar government, Japan’s Nippon Foundation launched the reconstruction project using funds from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By 2017, 1,250 houses, 7 schools, medical facilities, bridges and wells across Kayin (ကရင်) State had been constructed, many of which were in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်).
The ‘town of peace’ provided safe housing for internally displaced persons (IDPs), families of the KNU, and those returning from refugee camps in Thailand. Over 60 years of conflict in the region had left many thousands of Burmese citizens in refugee camps across the border, some of whom decided to relocate back to Lay Kay Kaw after its establishment. Saw Pha Hta Yar, the Administrator of Lay Kay Kaw told Karen News that they had been optimistic about their future in the region. IDPs and refugees had relocated to the town, where they had initiated new agricultural projects, started small businesses and created plans to encourage recreational tourism in the area. The town’s status not only identified it as a site of refuge, but it was hailed as a ‘model peace village’ and held up by the government as an example of how Myanmar could engage with peaceful development.
Part of the peacebuilding process allowed the town to be controlled administratively by the KNU. However, due to their de facto control and the absence of military personnel, it became a popular location for anti-government forces, protestors, and those engaged in the civil disobedience movement. Following the 2021 coup d’état, many people belonging to these anti-government groups came to the area to seek refuge and humanitarian protection. As a result, an area that was once held up as a symbol of peace, became a site of resistance and a battle ground once more.
Figure 1: Location of Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်)
Pressure on Myanmar-Thailand relations
The Myanmar military is alleged to have conducted searches for those involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and groups aligned with the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which led to clashes in the area in December 2021. The proximity of clashes in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) to the Thai border has led to increased tensions with Myanmar’s neighbour. According to the UNHCR these clashes resulted in the displacement of around 4,600 residents of multiple villages who fled across the Moei River, which marks the border with Thailand. Thai authorities allowed them to stay for several days before some returned. The state narrative outlines how this movement was the result of voluntary return. Alternatively, Myanmar Now, on 21 December 2021, alleges that around 200 refugees with the ‘assistance of the Thai authorities’ returned to Myanmar, only to later return back to Thailand amid intensifying clashes. The BBC reported that around 10,000 refugees fled Myanmar as a result of the clashes in and around Kayin in December; however, these numbers cannot be confirmed.
Following artillery strikes and air attacks on the town by the Myanmar military, the Thai military mobilised near the border and allegedly prepared to retaliate should stray shells land on Thai soil. At least two shells are believed to have landed across the border: one on a Thai sugarcane plantation, causing a small fire; and, another on a civilian’s home, with no casualties. The military have, on several occasions, used jets and helicopters in the area and, it is claimed by news media, used said aircraft to cause destruction. As a result, the KNU appealed to the United Nations (UN) to declare the airspace around Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) a “no-fly zone”. However, by July 2022, the UN had not responded to this request.
Figure 2: Map of Lay Kay Kaw and surrounding villages shown on Google Earth. The red line represents the Thai-Burma border.
Methodology, Limitations and Gender analysis
For full information, download the PDF.
The December Clashes
In the months leading up to December 2021, tension in the region was building as authorities reportedly inspected Lay Kay Kaw. Myanmar Witness identified images of the military checking cars in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) (Figure 3 and 4). While Myanmar Witness cannot determine the exact dates these photos were taken, one of the earliest uploads of the photos was in October 2021. An analysis of their uniform and badges suggests that these military soldiers appear to be part of the Coastal Region Command (ကမ်းရိုးတန်းတိုင်းစစ်ဌာနချုပ်) which controls the 43 Infantry Battalion (Figure 5).
Figure 3: Myanmar military soldiers checking cars in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်).
Figure 4: Geolocation of military stopping a car for a search [16.631028, 98.536159]
Figure 5: Badge of the Coastal Region Command (ကမ်းရိုးတန်းတိုင်းစစ်ဌာနချုပ်) controlling the 43 Infantry Battalions in comparison with the badge seen on these officers.
According to reports from the Karen Information Center, it appears that locals were worried about the possibility of clashes in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) following the arrival of additional members of the Myanmar military at around 0900 on 13 December 2021. On 14 December 2021, news sites including VOA and social media users reported that the Myanmar military had begun arresting activists and members of the town’s government. On social media it was claimed that between 18 and 23 people, including a doctor, a local government official, and two police officers were arrested.
Additional images geolocated by Myanmar Witness to 16.602629, 98.531425, allegedly taken on 15 December 2021, appear to show the military in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်). Claims alongside the image suggested that more security forces were entering the village than were captured in the pictures. According to Khit Thit Media at around 1120 local time, fighting broke out between security forces and KNU forces. The clashes continued throughout December 2021 and heavy artillery was allegedly used by security forces in Mae Htaw Thale (မယ်ထော်တလေးရွာ); this is described in 16 December 2021 (page 25). Myanmar Witness has geolocated footage of smoke in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) which appears to signal a heavy artillery attack; however, this cannot be directly confirmed or attributed to the security forces (page 33).
On 15 December 2021, Myanmar Witness began identifying posts claiming that residents of Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) and the surrounding villages were having to leave their homes due to the fighting in the area. For example, RFA claimed that around 1,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) had left their homes to avoid the violence in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်). What purports to be a witness statement uploaded by Khit Thit Media claims that as of 16 December 2021 more than 2,000 local people had already fled the fighting from the villages of Htee Mel War Khee (ထီးမယ်ဝါးခီးရွာ), Mae Htaw Thale (မယ်ထော်တလေးရွာ), and Bel Hi Kalaw (ဘဲဟိကလော်ရွာ), as well as Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်. This included around 700 people who had fled across the Thaung Yin river to the Thai border. Myanmar Witness has identified images and footage of people at Thaung Yin river, posted on 16 December 2021 (page 19). In the footage of refugees crossing the river there are noises in the background which sound like gunshots and artillery fire. Reports indicate that people continued to relocate throughout December, some of which took refuge on the Thai side of the border.
According to reports from Khit Thit Media and social media posts the fighting spread to Myawaddy (မြဝတီ) and Kawkareik (ကော့ကရိတ်) townships, where almost 50 Myanmar military soldiers’ deaths were reported. Myanmar Witness has also identified media geolocated to Mae Htaw Thale (မယ်ထော်တလေး) and Hpa Luu (ဖလူး) village throughout December which showed intensified fighting.
In the late evening of 23 December 2021, the military reportedly used an aircraft to bomb an area of Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်), before ground troops stationed on a nearby hill started firing heavy artillery towards the village of Mae Htaw Thale (မယ်ထော်တလေး). The KNU released a statement on the same night describing the impact of two airstrikes and reiterating its call for a no-fly zone in the area. In the following days and into the end of December airstrikes reportedly continued. Social media posts also reported on the frequent clashes in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) and the use of artillery by security forces, including those that landed on Thai territory.
Key Event Mapping
Figure 6: Mapping of the different events at varying levels of verification that are described in this report. For privacy reasons, a location was not provided for the 19th December report.
Media coverage of the clashes
The events in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) have been reported on by a number of different media outlets, including The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Now, Radio Free Asia and ABC News. The articles focussed on a range of different subjects including: the use of heavy artillery; citizens leaving their homes for other geographically close areas; citizens fleeing across the Thai border en masse to escape the fighting; and the unjustified arrests of suspected pro-democracy activists.
Thai media outlets also reported on the fighting in and around Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) due to the concerning number of refugees crossing the border. Similarly, the UNHCR submitted an inter-agency situation report detailing the steps taken by humanitarian actors to support the Royal Thai Government’s efforts to receive and provide aid to refugees fleeing Myanmar. The UNHCR states that “conflicts between the Tatmadaw and PDF are increasing, resulting in more violence against civilians…” due to the “raids [by the military] and ensuing conflict”. This investigation by Myanmar Witness has found evidence to support this statement. It is evident that the military’s arbitrary raids and attacks in and around Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) have significantly affected the lives of civilians.
Myanmar state-run media takes a markedly different stance on events in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) and the surrounding villages. Global New Light of Maynmar (GNLM) published a story claiming not only that the responsibility of the fighting here lies with “CRPH, NUG, PDF terrorists” (CRPH - Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw; NUG - National Unity Government) but that the military were arresting said individuals and attacking with airstrikes under their ‘Rules of Engagement’. This confirms claims by locals that the military were using airstrikes during the clashes with local forces. On 30 December 2021, GNLM reported on the IDPs in Myawaddy (မြဝတီ), but framed their decision to leave as a way of escaping the KNU, who they claimed sought to break the National Ceasefire Agreement in this designated area of peace.
Chronological Reconstruction of Events in Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်)
Using open-source investigative methods, Myanmar Witness has put together a detailed, chronological reconstruction of events in and around Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) during December 2021. By doing so, it has been possible to trace the shifts in violence within the area, reveal the targeting of civilian areas, and show the movement of IDPs and refugees.
Timeline of alleged and verified events
To read the day-by-day break down of events, download the full report.
Through open source analysis, Myanmar Witness has been able to shed light on many events which have occurred in and around Lay Kay Kaw (လေးကေ့ကော်) during December 2021. This chronological reconstruction of events, supported by verified footage and images, gathered using open source techniques, has demonstrated the human toll of clashes between the military and local defence forces. Evidence has been collected which could suggest the use of heavy artillery targeting civilian areas, the seemingly unjust arrests of anti-SAC figures, and the displacement of thousands of individuals from their homes, many of whom have sought refuge across the Thai border. This mass displacement is almost certainly the result of the Myanmar military’s activity in the area. The attacks on civilian areas and violence inflicted upon civilians by the military has created IDPs, refugees and led to civilian deaths. What was once designated a ‘town of peace’ has sadly become a ‘town of pain’.
This report is the first in a series documenting the violence in Lay Kay Kaw. Myanmar Witness has continued to investigate alleged military violations in Lay Kay Kaw and its surrounding villages and will be releasing further reports detailing more recent activity in this area, including refugee movements and artillery strikes. To browse reports, visit the Myanmar Witness website: myanmarwitness.org/reports