Thai military soldier keeps guard along the Moei river on...

Thai military soldier keeps guard along the Moei river on the Thai side, under the 2nd Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot in Thailand's Tak province on Friday, April 12, 2024. Thailand’s foreign minister says he has urged Myanmar’s military authorities not to violently respond to its army’s loss of an important border trading town to its opponents, and that so far it seemed to be exercising restraint. Credit: AP/Sakchai Lalit

MAE SOT, Thailand — Thailand’s foreign minister on Friday said he urged Myanmar’s military authorities not to violently respond to its army’s loss of an important border trading town to its opponents, and that so far they seemed to be exercising restraint.

Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara spoke during a visit to Mae Sot, which lies directly across a river from Myanmar’s Myawaddy, where army troops abandoned their last defensive position early Thursday.

Their hasty escape ceded virtual control of the busy trading town to guerrillas of the ethnic Karen National Union and its allies, including members of the pro-democracy People’s Defense Forces.

Myanmar’s once-mighty armed forces have suffered a series of unprecedented defeats since last October, losing swathes of territory including border posts to both ethnic fighters and guerrilla units. Civilians took up arms after the generals seized power in 2021 from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The military has frequently hit back heavily, using air power.

Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for Myanmar's military government, told the BBC’s Burmese language service Thursday night that the soldiers at the army’s last base outside Myawaddy town abandoned the post for the safety of their families who were living with them. He said Myanmar was in talks with Thailand about getting them safely back, and acknowledged that Karen guerrillas were inside the town.

There is concern that the Myanmar military might launch a concerted counter- attack against Myawaddy, which could send thousands fleeing into Thailand for safety and badly disrupt border trade.

Speaking to reporters after inspecting the area, Foreign Minister Parnpree said Thailand had already spoken with Myanmar’s military and told them they did not wish to see violence, offering Thailand’s help.

This photo shows a general view of a checkpoint near...

This photo shows a general view of a checkpoint near the 1st Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Myawaddy district in eastern Myanmar, on Friday, April 12, 2024. Thailand’s foreign minister says he has urged Myanmar’s military authorities not to violently respond to its army’s loss of an important border trading town to its opponents, and that so far it seemed to be exercising restraint. Credit: AP/Sakchai Lalit

“Now, what we are most concerned about is that we want to see peace in Myawaddy, not only because of the trading, but it’s our neighbor,” he said. “We do not wish for any violence to happen. If talks are possible, among their groups, we will be very welcoming of that, and if they want us to be the mediator, we are ready to help coordinating.”

He said he hoped there could be talks between the opposing sides to prevent retaliatory attacks.

“We have already sent people to talk to them. And for the situation today, they already said that there will not yet be any violent retaliation. If they wanted to be violent, they would have already done that days ago."

On Friday evening, however, there were at least two loud explosions emanating from the area on the Myanmar side of one of the two bridges connecting Myawaddy and Mae Sot. Their cause could not immediately be discovered.

Myanmar buddhist monks and tourists cross the 1st Thai-Myanmar Friendship...

Myanmar buddhist monks and tourists cross the 1st Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot in Thailand's Tak province on Friday, April 12, 2024. Thailand’s foreign minister says he has urged Myanmar’s military authorities not to violently respond to its army’s loss of an important border trading town to its opponents, and that so far it seemed to be exercising restraint. Credit: AP/Sakchai Lalit

Residents from both sides of the river said earlier there have been frequent explosions in the past few days from airstrikes against captured positions outside Myawaddy town, but that Friday was quiet. Thai immigration officials said visitor numbers from Myanmar were unexceptional.

But for some, the quiet was the problem. A Myawaddy resident who only gave his name as Sulai told The Associated Press it unnerved him so he fled.

“They fear the quiet. They are afraid of silence with no sound of fighting. Those with experience say it means the fight is much more likely to continue," he said.

Thai troops were keeping watch in Mae Sot on Friday, especially near the bridges. Besides reassuring residents of their safety, they served to block pockets of trapped Myanmar soldiers from slipping across the border.

On the Myanmar side, a small group of men lounged in the stifling heat. Thai troops said they were from the Border Guard Force, a Karen group that was aligned with Myanmar’s military who recently severed their links.

The Karen National Union — the leading political body for the Karen ethnic minority — said in a statement on its Facebook page on Friday that it will establish administrative mechanisms, prevent illicit businesses, contraband and human trafficking and implement stability and law enforcement as well as facilitate trade in the Myawaddy area when it secures its position there.

The KNU said it's deeply concerned about the security of the people living on both sides of the border, seeks to have stability and access to humanitarian aid and is working to achieve meaningful cooperation with the Thai government and local and international partner organizations.

The Karen, who are native to the eastern state of Kayin, have been fighting for more than seven decades for greater autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. A wider struggle including other ethnic minority groups and pro-democracy militants began after the army’s 2021 takeover.

The Karen make up a large part of about 90,000 refugees from Myanmar who live in nine long-term refugee camps in Thailand after fleeing previous rounds of fighting.

The army's setbacks of the past few months have been noted by Myanmar's neighbors, who have generally been wary of intervening in the crisis there, said Moe Thuzar, a Myanmar scholar who is a senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“Already, we have heard the Thai prime minister acknowledge that the Myanmar military is losing strength. How will the various opposition forces coordinate and consolidate these gains towards the resistance’s stated objectives for the country’s political future, is yet unclear,” she told The Associated Press in an email. “Unclear too, is how neighboring capitals will react or respond to the implications of the change in tax and administrative control of these border crossings.”

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