Threat of junta airstrikes forces ethnic Karen schools and students into forests

Recent Myanmar military airstrikes and aerial surveillance have forced thousands of Karen State civilians to flee their homes, including children currently taking their annual school exams, which are being administered by their teachers in hiding in the surrounding forests. 

Four times on February 18, junta jets flew over three villages along the Thaungyin (Moei) River in Hpa-an District, an area located within territory administered by the Karen National Union’s (KNU) Brigade 7. Residents left their villages, fearing impending attacks like those perpetrated against civilians in Brigade 5, Hpapun (Mutraw) District days earlier. 

On February 14 and 15, the air force bombed the villages of Daybunoh and Taw Tee Pel, destroying a school and six homes, according to the KNU. One month earlier, a junta airstrike on Hpapun’s Lay Wah village killed five civilians including a 2-year-old child and a pastor, and destroyed two schools and a church. 

Teachers, students and their families in Hpa-an said that they were concerned that schools in their district could be bombed as well. There is a primary, middle and high school administered by the Karen Education and Culture Department in the area of Hpa-an where the jets were most recently seen.

“All of the students are taking shelter in the forests and we had to make preparations in these forests for them to be able to take their annual exams,” a teacher said. “The parents are all worried that their children might fall behind on their education.”

A 12-year-old girl currently sitting for her exams in the forests of Hpa-an told Myanmar Now—with the permission of her guardian and teacher—that she and her peers were worried that even in the woods, they could still be the target of further attacks by the military.  

“I heard about the bombings in other regions that killed kids my age and it breaks my heart every time I hear news like this,” she said. “I feel so bad for them but I can’t do anything about it. Even I, myself, am taking my exams in the forest, not knowing when the military is going to come back and launch airstrikes.”

Locals said that junta jets were also seen hovering over villages located around the KNU headquarters, located at another site also named Lay Wah but in Hpa-an District, on February 18, with drones scouting the area in the evening.

Some 1,000 residents of two area villages subsequently left their homes, fearing forthcoming attacks. Those who stayed behind did so because of health conditions that prevented them from fleeing, a man from the area explained, noting that they positioned themselves near bunkers and trenches if bombings were to occur. 

“Some clinics are even sending patients home as we don’t know when the next airstrike will come,” the man said, adding that these sites have been targeted in past assaults. 

Among the villagers who left, some attempted to cross the Thaungyin (Moei) River and enter neighbouring Thailand, but were reportedly turned back by the local authorities. 

“Some families tried to cross over to Thailand, thinking they’d be safe there. But they could only go as far as the shore, as the Thai police force wouldn’t let them across,” another local said. 

The junta has carried out some 307 airstrikes within Karen territory in the two years since the February 2021 military coup, the KNU said on Tuesday. 

During this time, 36 civilians were killed and 57 were injured in the aerial attacks and heavy weapons fire by the regime; more than 20 of these deaths occurred in late March 2021, when the military carried out three days of airstrikes on villages in the KNU’s Brigade 5.

Some 258 homes, 12 schools, six hospitals, eight churches and four monasteries were also destroyed by the junta in KNU territory over the last two years, according to the organisation.

The military council has denied carrying out such attacks against the public, instead claiming that it targets “terrorists.”

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