Sixteen Myanmar soldiers died and 110 were wounded on Thursday during a major offensive against ethnic Kokang insurgents in northeast Myanmar near the Chinese border, state media reported, as government troops ordered refugees to return to their homes.
The Myanmar army occupied strategic hills during the fighting with the Kokang rebels, state-owned Myawaddy TV station reported.
Tun Myat Linn, spokesman for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Kokang army, said Kokang troops withdrew from the hilltop before army soldiers attacked them.
The MNDAA on Feb. 9 launched a bid to retake the rugged and mountainous Kokang region, a corner of Shan State which it had controlled until 2009, beginning in the Kokang regional capital Laukkai.
More than 40 civilians were injured during the fighting and taken to a hospital in a Chinese border town, state media reported, although local residents said the number of people killed was higher than the number of those wounded.
Myanmar military officers on Thursday ordered the refugees to return to their homes within three days or else be considered enemies, Twan Kya That, a local Kokang resident, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“They are frightened to return,” he said. “The government army asked them to return once a few months ago and they did, but they got shot. Now they are afraid of returning.”
Refugees said the Myanmar army has used armored cars and planes in the attacks, according to local media.
He said that the officers issued the order because Kokang troops took many young men from the refugee camp where they were staying to fight alongside them.
“Some joined the Kokang army when they became angry with the Myanmar army after their relatives were killed and injured,” he said.
Previously, there were about 1,000 Kokang soldiers, but the number swelled to about 3,000 troops when young men joined it after government troops destroyed their families and villages.
Hundreds of soldiers on both sides have been killed in the conflict, and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced.
Htun Myat Lin told the Associated Press that about 700 government soldiers had died and 1,500 were wounded since the fighting began in February, while Kokang casualties number 30 dead and more than 60 injured.
Peace deal in the making
The conflict comes as the Myanmar government is trying to score a nationwide peace deal with around a dozen armed ethnic groups, except for the Kokang, to end decades of fighting.
In a bid to make headway on a nationwide ceasefire pact, ethnic army leaders will hold a summit on May 1-3 in the Wa autonomous zone at United Wa State headquarters in Pangsang, according to a report by Democratic Voice of Burma.
The talks will be the fourth such conference and follow on the heels of last month’s signing of an agreement on a draft text of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents 16 armed ethnic groups, and the government’s Union Peace-Making Work Committee.
The government has urged ethnic groups to not invite the Kokang, Rakhine and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) groups to the summit.
The MNDAA has confirmed that it will attend the conference.
“We will hold the summit without the Kokang, Rakhine and TNLA rebel groups if they can’t join us, but all ethnic groups need to be included when we sign on final NCA,” Aung Myint, spokesman of the United Wa State Army, told RFA. “It shouldn’t be like we are signing the NCA on this side, and fighting is still going on on the other side. We all want to sign the final NCA and have peace as soon as possible.”
Mai Aike Kyaw, spokesman of the TNLA, said his group, the Kokang and the Wa formed a political alliance because their areas bordered each other.
“The government army is worried that our armies will become affiliated after the summit if we attend it,” he said.
The TNLA and the Kachin Independence Army are the only two major ethnic armed groups that have not signed bilateral ceasefires with the government.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Thiha Tun of RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.