Dozens of families lie on mats surrounded by their belongings at a Buddhist monastery in Rakhine State, the latest to be uprooted by a civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands.
An armed group belonging to the Rakhine ethnic minority attacked government security forces last week in the state, which borders Bangladesh, opening yet another front against a ruling junta already battling coordinated attacks in the north and east.
The group, the Arakan Army, is part of the Three Brotherhood Alliance alongside the Myanmar National Democratic Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, that launched a surprise offensive against the junta last month in northern Shan State, on the border with China
The widening clashes have forced nearly 335,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
After AA fighters briefly occupied Pauktaw town, on the Kaladan River, the military sent navy vessels to shell the town of about 20,000 people on Thursday and strafed it with gunfire from helicopters, residents told Agence France-Presse.
As junta troops closed in, thousands fled the town and surrounding villages, some in boats, to seek shelter in Buddhist monasteries.
“I heard rumours that military troops were marching toward the villages and shooting civilians,” displaced resident Ko Mg Mg told AFP from a monastery outside the town.
“We had many difficulties when we were fleeing because we were crossing a river with small boats during heavy rains,” said Mg Mg, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
“Everyone was in a panic.”
Cold and sick
In the calm of the monastery, families sat in groups talking and preparing food.
One woman rocked a baby to sleep.
The junta says it has regained control over Pauktaw but there are ongoing clashes in the area.
Last week local media quoted residents as saying that around 100 people had been detained in the town since the military arrived and that an unknown number were feared to have been killed.
Patchy communication with the area makes verifying casualty figures extremely difficult.
The fighting has displaced almost 20,000 people from the area, the UN said.
Many roads and waterways in the riverine state have been blocked by the military, closing options for villagers to flee to safety.
“We came here on foot and by boat during heavy rains,” U Than Than, 45, who fled her village near Pauktaw last week, told AFP.
“Children were very cold and some were sick.”
“I’m really concerned about the belongings we had to leave behind in our village.”
The AA has fought an on-off war for years seeking more autonomy for the state’s ethnic Rakhine population.
Created in 2009, it’s one of dozens of ethnic minority armed groups that have battled Myanmar’s military since independence from Britain in 1948.
Some groups want greater autonomy while others simply want the right to run the lucrative trade in jade, drugs and timber in their territory.
The AA is also battling the junta across northern Shan alongside other fighters from the Brotherhood.
Since deposing the democratic government in 2021, the military has struggled to quell armed resistance from civilian anti-junta People’s Defence Forces.
But the new offensive – which has seized towns and blocked vital trade routes to key junta backer China – poses the biggest threat yet to the generals, analysts say.
Almost 200 civilians, including children, have been killed since the offensive began on October 27, according to the UN.
On the back foot, the military is relying more heavily on its superior air and artillery power.
“If there are battles between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military, fighter jets will come and hit our villages,” Mg Mg said.
“Fighter jets don’t just hit where there is a battle, they destroy everything.”
SOURCE – Frontier Myanmar