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Ethnic group in Myanmar faces airstrikes, new attacks for protesting coup

Two months ago, the Myanmar military staged a coup and overthrew the civilian government and has since met resulting protests with violence. The conflict is now entering a new stage as militias associated with the country’s ethnic minorities join the protests, with Karen refugees facing new air attacks by the military. Thousands have already fled into neighboring Thailand. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two months ago, Myanmar's military overthrew the civilian government, provoking widespread demonstrations that have left more than 500 protesters dead.

    The conflict is now entering a new stage, as demonstrators are uniting with ethnic armed groups. Just this evening, the U.S. State Department ordered all non-emergency government employees and their families to leave the country.

    This weekend, the military bombed one group in Karen state, sparking a humanitarian crisis along the Thai border.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Along the Burmese-Thai border, the only safe place from airstrikes are caves. They bring mats for mattresses, so they can sleep away from nearby homes stained with the blood of airstrike victims.

    They are ethnic Karen, fleeing only with what they can carry from attacks by the Myanmar military. Many hide out in the forest. Others escape by boat to neighboring Thailand. Many are badly wounded and had no medical attention or sustenance since they fled.

  • Sel Khu Mu (through translator):

    I haven't eaten anything for two consecutive days. I haven't got any medical care because we were escaping.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Initially, hundreds of refugees fled their homes, only to be met with concertina wire and Thai soldiers, who forced them to return to Myanmar.

  • Wahkushee Tenner:

    They are still afraid and scared, and they feel like it is still not safe for them to return. But they have no choice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, Wahkushee Tenner is the director of the Karen Peace Support Network, a group of Karen civil society groups that work along the border. She says, for the Karen, military airstrikes are, sadly, nothing new.

  • Wahkushee Tenner:

    The Karen people demonstrated against the Burma army for a long time already and demanding for the removal of Burma army post from our areas.

    They kill their own people. They murder their own people. This is something they have done to the ethnic area for so long already.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Myanmar has about 20 ethnic armed groups in yellow that control about one-third of the country's territory. The Karen National Union are the oldest, the most notorious recent target in Rakhine State, the Arakan Army, and the Rohingya.

    The military targeted the Rohingya with a campaign of scorched earth. The U.N. accused it of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. These conflicts between the state and ethnic groups go back 75 years.

  • Narrator:

    Number 10 Downing Street and another piece Far Eastern history is made with the signing of the Burma treaty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1947, the Burmese government obtained independence, but not unity.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    The Karen did not really accept the 1947 constitution, so they were always sort of outside. And they started fighting against the newly formed government even then.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Priscilla Clapp is the former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar. She says the Myanmar military came to rule the country for decades by keeping ethnic armed groups apart and pitting them against each other.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    The country was very heavily armed. It is awash in non-state armed groups. And if they are all operating separately, the military has been able to keep them more or less under control. But that may be changing right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Changing because of horror. Across the country, young protesters opposed to the coup are targeted for death. Soldiers are beating and shooting people in the streets. This past Saturday was the deadliest day since the coup.

    Often, the victims are children; 13-year-old Siway Young (ph) was killed by a single bullet to the head. His family filled his funeral with a song of revolution. Their and Burmese anger has fueled widespread protests almost every day for two months. Some protesters fight with homemade weapons. Others are armed with disobedience.

    The civil disobedience movement has brought tens of thousands of government employees into the streets to grind the country to a halt. And now the Karen are protecting and siding with the protesters. The Karen recently broke a cease-fire to attack the military supply lines. That led to this weekend's military airstrikes.

    And now other ethnic groups are threatening to cancel their cease-fires with the military.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    The army is being increasingly challenged by various different disparate groups in the country that are now joining forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And do you believe that threatens military rule?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Well, I think it makes the country basically ungovernable for the military.

  • Wahkushee Tenner:

    For the young people, we see that there's a — it's very different from the past. They are very, very smart, very active, and they sacrifice a lot in this fight.

    And, also, a lot has changed. Like, we can see that they started to understand the suffering of ethnic people and also start to realize how bad the military regime is.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That realization allows the military's opponents to unify, but the military will continue to use whatever means necessary to hold power.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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