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Myanmar military loses control of key town on Thai border, rebels say, in major win for anti-junta resistance


By Helen Regan, Teele Rebane, Kocha Olarn and Sandi Sidhu, CNN

(CNN) — Myanmar rebels fighting the junta say they have seized the last remaining military base in a key border town, dealing the latest significant blow to the country’s military rulers as they struggle to cling to power.

About 200 soldiers abandoned their base in the southeastern town of Myawaddy and have been pushed to the No 2. Friendship Bridge linking Myanmar to Thailand following an attack Wednesday night by Karen resistance fighters, a spokesperson for the Karen National Union told CNN Thursday.

“Officially we (are in) control of the town Myawaddy since last night,” KNU spokesperson Saw Taw Nee said. The loss of the major trading point with Thailand was “a big issue for the military,” he added.

CNN cannot independently confirm the KNU’s claim. The spokesperson clarified that the rebels do not yet control the border bridge, saying the soldiers are trying to get safe passage into Thailand.

Myawaddy, a strategically important town of 200,000 people, sits across from Thailand’s Mae Sot. The border crossing, which was under the control of the junta, is vital for trade, especially commercial goods and food flowing into Myanmar.

It is also the location for multiple compounds that form the billion dollar online scam factories that have exploded inside Myanmar’s lawless border regions in recent years, many of them staffed by foreign nationals forced to work in conditions akin to modern day slavery. The UN estimates that up to 120,000 people could be held in compounds across Myanmar.

Video shared by Reuters shows Myanmar citizens crossing the border to Thailand on Thursday with some saying they felt scared amid the fighting. Footage also showed Thai military vehicles and troops stationed along the border.

The KNU, one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethic armed organizations, said its armed wing captured Battalion 275, the last remaining military base in the town, at around 10 p.m. Wednesday after negotiations for the junta’s troops to lay down their arms broke down.

“We tried to persuade them not to attack us but to surrender, for several hours,” Saw Taw Nee said.

Fighting around Myawaddy has been ongoing for days. Since April 5, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – the KNU’s military’s wing – and its allies have seized military outposts and bases on the outskirts of Myawaddy. Saw Taw Nee said 670 junta personnel surrendered to the KNLA following these attacks.

Only Battalion 275 was holding out. On Wednesday night, the troops stationed there had expected reinforcements from the military’s Southeast Command to help them. When no reinforcements came, the soldiers abandoned their posts and fled to the border bridge, according to the KNU.

CNN has reached out to Myanmar’s military junta for comment.

Saw Taw Nee said the resistance plans to set up their own administration in Myawaddy.

Teetering junta

Myanmar has been plunged into a devastating civil war after the military seized power in a coup in February 2021, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy and replacing it with a ruling military junta.

The junta has launched increasingly brutal attacks against the people of Myanmar as it struggles to hold on to power. A nationwide armed resistance movement, which includes many of the country’s powerful ethnic rebel armies like the KNU, now poses a legitimate threat to the junta.

There are concerns among the resistance fighters and residents in Myawaddy that the military will launch an air offensive on the town, as it has done in other areas it has lost control of.

A 45-year-old resident in Myawaddy told CNN Thursday that fighter jets had been buzzing overhead and she has sent her eight children across the border to Thailand for their safety.

“In Myawaddy, some people have left while some are still here, but they are staying alerted ready for their safety of airstrikes as well as for thieves,” she said.

“Everyone who is left in the town is worried about the potential airstrikes,” she added. “We all have families with kids, that’s why we don’t want major damage in the town.”

Thailand’s Third Army Region Commander Lt. Gen. Prasarn Saengsirirak confirmed to CNN Thursday that the base had been captured and warned Myanmar against any military airstrikes encroaching into Thailand.

“More importantly, it must not spill over into Thai side. They must be very careful. We will warn them if they enter (into the Thai side),” Prasarn said. “We would know as soon as their aircraft takes off.”

The Thai military has increased patrols along the border and prepared a temporary safe area for any affected civilians, Prasarn added.

He said that border crossings between Myanmar and Thailand and the flow of goods are operating as normal.

The fall of Myawaddy to the resistance forces is the latest humiliating defeat for the junta, which has been losing control of towns, bases and territory across the country, as it grapples with troop losses and reports of mass defections.

Last month, ethnic rebels in northern Kachin state seized a key trading town on the Myanmar-China border, along with dozens of outposts and bases, according to local media. In western Rakhine state, the Arakan Army has recently seized major towns and is gaining significant ground against junta forces.

Analysts say the fall of Myawaddy to the resistance is a turning point because it underlines the junta’s inability to reverse its defeats.

“Step by step it’s just watching these losses and not being able to do anything in response,” said independent Myanmar researcher Kim Jolliffe. “That’s why it further confirms the junta is going to fall because it’s just not at any point displayed the ability to strategically reverse the situation and regain initiative.”

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