Updated at 02:45 p.m. EST on 2015-03-24
Ethnic armed forces fighting Myanmar government troops in the Kokang border region of Shan state are actively recruiting Chinese nationals as mercenaries to boost their numbers, RFA has learned.
While the Myanmar government has strongly denied the involvement of Chinese mercenaries in the conflict with the Kokang fighters, military recruiter Lu Wei said he is currently offering a sign-up package to former soldiers demobilized from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to join rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) forces.
Chinese mercenaries are being offered 30,000 yuan (U.S. $4,830) to sign up for periods of at least a month with the MNDAA and allied military groups, according to middle man Lu Wei.
It was unclear which faction of the MNDAA army was doing the recruiting—that of ageing leader Peng Jiasheng, or that of commander Bai Suocheng, who has closer ties with the Myanmar government.
But Lu, who is based in Nansan township in China's southwestern province of Yunnan, said the recruitment drive didn't seem to be working.
"We have been trying to hire people but nobody wants to go," he told RFA in a recent interview in Yunnan.
"They have their own network, and they just leave a phone number," Lu said.
"If you fight for them, they pay 1,000 yuan (U.S. $160) a day."
He said some people had discovered the rate of pay by calling the number.
"They will pay 30,000 yuan as a sign-up fee, and you have to get to Nansan or Mengding, and someone crosses the border to meet you," Lu said.
"You can take two companions with you, and one of them takes your money away [for safe-keeping] and then you go with them," he said.
"You get to go home after fighting with them for a month, and if you still want to carry on fighting, they will pay you 1,000 yuan a day," Lu said.
But he said not many Chinese were taking up the offer.
"They're only paying 30,000 yuan, and you're not going there on holiday; you're going to fight in a war," Lu said. "If you die, it will have been for nothing."
Lu said Myanmar's army currently enlists boys as young as 13 to be soldiers, and never allows them to be demobilized, only on leave with the possibility of recall.
"Some people don't want their kids to be soldiers, so they send them to live in China when they're about one or two years old, and they never go back," said Lu, who was himself brought to live in Yunnan at a young age by his parents after being born in Kokang.
"If you never go back, you're no longer a Kokang, and they take them after six years of schooling to be soldiers in Kokang," he said.
"You might have more freedom in China, but it means you can't see your parents again for the rest of your life."
Asked if the MNDAA under Peng and Bai Suocheng still practices conscription, Lu said: "Yes, they are all pressed into the army."
He said much of the lives of the "soldiers" is taken up with regular farming and food production, however.
"It's like being a farmer over here [in China]," Lu said. "You pick sugar cane and harvest grain all day."
Sympathy for Kokangs
Lin Wucheng, a young man who was born in Kokang but is now living in Yunnan, said there is strong sympathy for the Kokang cause among China's military and armed police forces.
"Last time I went to the border, I saw [the Kokang fighters] had taken off their uniforms and swapped clothes with local people ... and then they went up to talk with the [Chinese border police] and then the police gave them a route through, where they could drop down out of the mountains," Lin said.
"Things were pretty tense, and everyone who passed through gave seven or eight packs of good cigarettes to the [Chinese] armed police," he said.
A volunteer for a charity in the border region surnamed Luo said Kokang military vehicles had also been seen helping civilian refugees get to their destination amid the conflict.
"You have no idea how close the relationship is between ordinary people [and the Kokang fighters]," Luo said.
"That's why I don't think the Myanmar army can win this war, because wherever they go, the population isn't on their side, so the fighting will never end," he said.
"I don't know how many people are going to die; this could go on for another 50 years," he said.
Meanwhile, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is allied with the MNDAA but has remained in its own territory, engaged government troops in fierce fighting on Sunday and Monday, with heavy casualties on the government side, a KIA spokesman told RFA on Tuesday.
"There has been fighting in our mountains yesterday and the day before," the spokesman, who gave only a surname Pai, said.
"Our military commanders are holding a meeting because the government troops have come to search the mountains [for rebels], leading to clashes between the two sides," he said.
"Yesterday it was in the direction of Nongdao."
Pai added: "There were some casualties on their side yesterday, maybe seven dead or injured, but none on our side."
"The fighting ended at around 3:00 p.m. yesterday afternoon," he said.
Kokang commander Peng Jiasheng launched a bid to retake the rugged and mountainous region of Shan state on Feb. 9, beginning in the Kokang regional capital Laukkai.
Tens of thousands of displaced civilians in northern Myanmar's conflict-riven Kokang region and across the Chinese border face worsening conditions and uncertainty over whether cease-fire talks will take place, sources have said.
In the No. 125 Border Marker camp on the Kokang side, the majority of makeshift tents and dwellings housing refugees had leaked badly in a recent storm, as the rainy season began, aid workers said.
"All of the tents had rain leaking through them so we couldn't sleep," Protestant missionary surnamed Li said on Tuesday.
"We need to rebuild the housing, and we should move higher up to do it, because we are right next to a river here, and it's not safe," Li said.
"We are going to need a large amount of tarpaulin if we are going to do this," he added. "We will also need to build a bigger store to keep the grain, rice and salt at the very least; the basics we need to survive."
A Kokang resident surnamed Yuan, who lives between the No. 125 camp and Laukkai, said there had been a lull in the fighting around the regional capital since Monday.
"We have returned to our home, which is not far from Laukkai," Yuan said. "A lot of people have come back here from the border, although some stayed behind in Border Marker No. 125 camp."
He said security was tight in Laukkai, with police on patrol on the city's streets, and the son of Myanmar army-backed Kokang leader Bai Suocheng was running it.
"Bai Suocheng's son is commanding the plainclothes security operation," Yuan said. "He is pro-government."
Bai, who was put in charge of the Kokang army after Peng was deposed following the 2009 Kokang fighting, left the region shortly after Peng's Feb. 9 offensive began.
"The army is definitely going to make a general attack in the next few days to try to wipe out the alliance in the mountainous regions," Yuan said.
"I think they have been discussing a change in their strategy for this war in the past couple of days."
Reported by Xin Lin and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.