Thousands flee Myanmar airstrikes, complicating crisis

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Thai villagers visit a checkpoint of the Thai Rangers in Mae Sakoep village in Mae Hong Son province, Thailand, Monday, March 29, 2021, where people from neighboring Myanmar arrived after they had fled from their homes, following airstrikes by Myanmar's military. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

YANGON – Thai soldiers began sending back some of the thousands of people who have fled a series of airstrikes by the military in neighboring Myanmar, people familiar with the matter said Monday. But Thai officials denied that as the insecurity on the border added a new dimension to an already volatile crisis set off by a coup in Myanmar.

The weekend strikes, which sent ethnic Karen people seeking safety in Thailand, represented another escalation in the violent crackdown by Myanmar’s junta on protests of its Feb. 1 takeover. On Saturday, more than 100 people were killed in and around demonstrations throughout the country — the bloodiest single day since the takeover.

The violence by the Myanmar military — both on the border and in cities around the country — raised the question of whether the international community would respond more forcefully than it has thus far to a coup that ousted the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and reversed years of progress toward democracy.

Britain called for a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council which will be held Wednesday afternoon, council diplomats said ahead of an official announcement. The council has condemned the violence and called for a restoration of democracy, but has not yet considered possible sanctions against the military, which would require support or an abstention by Myanmar’s neighbor and friend China.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the surge in killings by the military on Armed Forces Day “absolutely horrendous," and urged greater unity and commitment by the international community to put pressure on the coup leaders to reverse course and go back to “a serious democratic transition."

“My message to the military is very simple: Stop the killing. Stop the repression of the demonstrations. Release the political prisoners, and return power to those that have really the right to exercise it," he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Guterres said he's very worried that many trends look irreversible, “but hope is the last thing we can give up on."

In response to reports of people fleeing the airstrikes, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha had said earlier Monday that the country didn’t want “mass migration” but that it was preparing for an influx of people and would take human rights issues into consideration.