Fighting broke out on Wednesday morning between Myanmar army troops and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in the Karen State town of Lay Kay Kaw, local sources and media said.
Residents of the rebel-held Myawaddy District town told the Karen Information Centre (KIC) that the junta’s forces fired around 20 heavy artillery shells into an area where they assumed members of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) were stationed.
There were shootouts between the two sides in at least three places and there were still clashes at the time of reporting, the KIC reported.
Tension rose between the KNLA and the military after a junta raid on the town on Tuesday during which soldiers arrested some 30 people, according to local media.
During Tuesday’s raid, around 200 junta troops entered the town, which is under the control of the KNLA’s Brigade 6. The soldiers appear to have been looking for opponents of the junta who fled to the territory to avoid arrest.
Among those arrested was ousted National League for Democracy lawmaker Wai Lin Aung.
Many pro-democracy figures, including striking government employees, have made their way to areas under the control of ethnic armed organisations since the February coup.
Myo Ko Khant, a striking civil servant who has been hiding in Lay Kay Kaw, told Myanmar Now that he heard artillery fire around 11am on Wednesday. “The clash is very close to us. There is heavy artillery shelling around here. It seems to be very intense,” he said.
Along with some 200 others like him, Myo Ko Khant has now fled to a KNU camp, he added.
Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the head of the KNU’s foreign affairs department, said that the raid on the town was “unacceptable.”
“The military council has bluntly violated humanitarian rules. They need to respect the fact that we are helping people who are in trouble. Any institution should follow those rules,” he told Myanmar Now.
A resident in nearby Myawaddy told Myanmar Now that some troops from the junta-backed Kayin Border Guard Force (BGF) left the town in the afternoon as fighting raged in Lay Kay Kaw.
He estimated that about eight BGF troops who were guarding a casino in the town and three other personnel with the rank of lieutenant left the town.
He speculated that the BGF troops left for Lay Kay Kaw to serve as reinforcement for the Myanmar army. Myanmar Now is unable to verify this.
The BGF in August fought alongside the Myanmar military during clashes with KNLA troops in Karen’s Hpapun district, also known as Mutraw, which is controlled by the KNLA’s Brigade 5.
In Dooplaya District, where the KNLA’s Brigade 6 is based, there has been controversy about the presence of anti-coup forces. A local order in August barred people affiliated with the shadow National Unity Government from staying there, but the KNU’s central command dismissed the document as unrepresentative of its position and of members’ views.
Lay Kay Kaw was founded in February 2015 for the repatriation of Karen refugees from Thailand with the support of Japan’s Nippon Foundation, as part of Myanmar’s peace process.
Padoh Mahn Mahn, a spokesperson of the KNLA’s Brigade 5, said that Lay Kay Kaw was not designed with security concerns in mind or for defence from military assaults.
“We will need to retaliate as the military invaded our territory and made arrests and assaults,” said Pado Mahn Mahn.
The KNU was one of 10 ethnic armed groups that signed Myanmar’s 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the military. But clashes between the KNLA and the Myanmar army persisted even after the signing, as did allegations of the military repeatedly violating the agreement.
There have been numerous clashes between the KNLA and the junta’s armed forces in Karen territory since the military seized power in February.