Three armed rebel groups in Myanmar are threatening to “fight back” if the military does not stop killing anti-coup protesters, as neighbouring Thailand allowed more than a dozen Myanmar people fleeing violence to cross into a border village for medical care.
In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army (AA) said if the military continued to “kill the people, we will cooperate with the protesters and fight back”.
The warning came as the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a monitoring group, said security forces have killed at least 510 people since the February 1 power grab. The total killed on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the protests, had risen to 141, its figures showed.
Amid the rising death toll, one of the main groups behind the protests, the General Strike Committee of Nationalities, called for the country’s myriad ethnic minority forces to help those standing up to the “unfair oppression” of the military in an open letter on Monday.
Tuesday’s statement from the three armed groups indicates that the call may be gaining more traction.
The groups urged the military to open dialogue with opponents of the coup and resolve the crisis by political means.
“This kind of brutal killing of innocent civilians is unacceptable,” Khine Thu Kha, a spokesman for the AA, told Reuters in an audio message.
If such groups take up arms, Debbie Stothard at the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) told AFP the situation could degenerate towards civil war.
Two dozen ethnic minority rebellions have flared in Myanmar since independence from British colonial rule in 1948, fighting over autonomy, ethnic identity, drugs and natural resources. The military has sought to cut deals with some armed groups and earlier this month took the AA off the list of terrorist organisations.
But over the weekend it launched air raids in the eastern state of Karen – the first such raids in 20 years – targeting the Fifth Brigade of the Karen National Union (KNU) after the group seized a military base.
An estimated 3,000 people fled through the jungle to seek safety across the border in Thailand, according to local groups.
On Tuesday, a boat carrying more than a dozen people was allowed to dock in the Thai village of Mae Sam Laep, according to a health official. But another health official in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the Thai army was still sending back most of those fleeing Myanmar because it had deemed the situation over the border to be safe.
Myanmar villager Kyaw Lar Bri, 48, told Reuters on Tuesday that he was hit by bomb shrapnel from an air attack on Saturday before fleeing into the jungle and later boarding a boat to cross the river to Mae Sam Laep along with six other wounded people.
“It is still not safe and villagers do not dare to return to the villages,” he said.
Another man had large bruises on his back with open wounds, an injury one medical staffer said could have been caused by an explosion, while a woman appeared to have scarring and blisters on her face.
Activists have accused the Thai authorities of pushing the refugees back, but Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha denied those claims and said his government is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting.
“There is no influx of refugees yet. We asked those who crossed to Thailand if they have any problem in their area,” he told reporters. “When they say no problem, we just asked them to return to their land first. We asked, we did not use any force.”
Thai police meanwhile said they had intercepted 10 parcels containing 112 grenades and 6,000 rounds of ammunition in northern Chiang Rai province that had been destined for Myanmar’s notorious border town Tachileik.
Myanmar’s military has for decades justified its grip on power by saying it is the only institution capable of preserving national unity. It seized power saying that November elections won by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.
But foreign criticism and Western sanctions have failed to sway the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi remains in detention at an undisclosed location and many other figures in her party are also in custody.