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U.N. Officials Warn Of Civil War In Myanmar

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two months after the coup in Myanmar, protesters are still defying the military. Meanwhile, ethnic minority militias who've been fighting the military for decades have renewed their attacks as well. The military has responded to both threats with more violence against a population it has repressed for decades. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm standing on the Thai side of the Salween River in northwestern Thailand. It's one of Myanmar's longest rivers, and it forms a border between the two countries for a good bit here. And a lot of people from the other side want to be where I'm standing now because the other side is Myanmar's Karen state, where Myanmar's military has been bombing territory controlled by an ethnic minority militia for more than a week now.

Several thousand fled the airstrikes for safety across the river. Julien Desilets is a former monk who's lived on the Thai side for decades.

JULIEN DESILETS: Friday, there were machine guns and bombing. We could not see anything, but we could just hear because I live right on the border.

SULLIVAN: A Thai army captain who didn't give his name because he's not authorized to speak to the media says most of those who fled into Thailand have now left.

UNIDENTIFIED THAI ARMY CAPTAIN: (Through interpreter) They stayed for two or three days. Then the situation got better, and they went home.

SULLIVAN: Rights groups say they were forced out, but there's no way to prove it here. The Thai military isn't allowing journalists up the road just a little way to talk with those who remain. But the captain denies reports the majority were sent back against their will.

UNIDENTIFIED THAI ARMY CAPTAIN: (Through interpreter) Some Karen came, and we looked after them well. We took them to the hospital. We didn't send anyone back.

SULLIVAN: The Myanmar military's airstrikes have ceased for now. They followed the Karen National Union's attack on a Myanmar military outpost last week. On Wednesday, another ethnic minority militia in the north of the country said it killed at least 20 soldiers in another attack. The renewed violence, combined with the ongoing protests against the coup, have the neighbors worried.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Because the last thing we need, I think, in the neighborhood and internationally is some kind of collapsing state in Myanmar because that would have all kinds of humanitarian repercussions.

SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalangkorn University. From the neighbors' point of view, China and Thailand in particular, he says, the military keeping control may be the least worst option, in part because Thailand already has more than 100,000 refugees from previous crackdowns and doesn't want more.

But the situation seems to be deteriorating rapidly. Min Zaw Oo of Myanmar's Institute for Peace and Security compares the situation now to the one in Syria a few years back.

MIN ZAW OO: If the conflict escalates to the next level, there could be armed clashes in populated cities like Yangon and Mandalay.

SULLIVAN: He says the military may yet prevail short term, but at a very high cost.

ZAW OO: So this is a long-term battle the regime will face for coming years, could be decades, because the people hate the regime to the extent that we haven't seen in past 40 years.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Mae Sariang on the Thai-Myanmar border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.