Thousands of Refugees Hampered by Border, Road Closures in Kokang Conflict

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An injured Myanmar Red Cross volunteer lies on ground after vehicles of a rescue convoy were attacked by Kokang rebels near Laukkai, Feb. 17, 2015.
An injured Myanmar Red Cross volunteer lies on ground after vehicles of a rescue convoy were attacked by Kokang rebels near Laukkai, Feb. 17, 2015.

While fighting rages between ethnic Kokang rebels and government troops near the country's northeastern border with China, civilians fleeing the conflict are increasingly squeezed by roadblocks and border closures, local sources said on Tuesday.

Thousands of refugees remain trapped in the Kokang area, according to an ethnic Kokang volunteer working in the border area opposite the Chinese town of Nansan.

"There are 40,000 to 50,000 people over in Nansan, and their numbers are gradually increasing," the aid worker, who gave only a nickname, Xiao Yuan, told RFA. "There are about 5,000 to 6,000 refugees on the Kokang side of the border."

"Some of them can't get out, but from time to time the authorities release some of them across the border," he said.

He said many of the roads leading out of Kokang have been shut down by police.

"Nobody can get in," Xiao Yuan said. "The police are going after arms traffickers between Yangon and Kokang. They have caught some young ethnic Chinese, as well as arms smugglers from all the main ethnic groups."

"When they are caught, they're sent to work in army munitions camps," he said.

A second volunteer surnamed Yan said he had been told that the Chinese authorities had sealed off some border crossings.

"Some people told me that the Chinese border is already closed," Yan said. "But it's still possible to go via mountain and forest paths and get to China that way."

He said some refugees had decided to head south towards Thailand instead, however.

"They are going through the No. 4 Special Wa Region, and heading in the direction of Thailand," Yan said.

Meanwhile, Xiao Yuan, who is on the Kokang side of the border, said fighting had continued in the area on Tuesday.

"I can hear shelling, perhaps once every 10 minutes, but no gunfire," he said. "It has been going on since this morning. It's probably government troops."

Kokang self-administered zone

Fighting began on Feb. 9 in Laukkai, capital of the special region of Kokang near Myanmar's border with China, between army troops and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebel forces.

The MNDAA under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng are trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which it had controlled until 2009, forcing a wave of refugees away from the remote and rugged conflict zone in northeastern Shan state and across the border into China.

The MNDAA has been joined by three other ethnic minority armies: the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and part of the Shan State Army (SSA).

Government officials said the MNDAA are being helped in combat by guerrilla armies from the minority areas of Kachin, Mong La, Wa, Palaung, and northern Shan, as well as by former Chinese soldiers working as mercenaries.

According to a KIA official in the conflict zone, some refugees have remained in Kokang, while a few hundred are following KIA troops.

"There are more than 400 people here with the KIA, more than 60 households," Pai, a former deputy health minister in a pre-2009 regional administration, said on Tuesday.

He said they had been unable to cross into China because some of the roads were closed.

State of emergency

Across the border in China's Yunnan province, an estimated 100,000 refugees are now encamped in tents and makeshift public buildings after taking refuge across the border from the fighting, according to aid workers.

Myanmar has declared a state of emergency in the region in response to the conflict, and called on Beijing to prevent rebels from using its territory to launch "terrorist activities."

Chinese officials have stepped up border controls and called on all parties to prevent a further escalation of fighting.

A missionary aid worker in Yunnan's Dehong autonomous prefecture said many ethnic Chinese who were permanent residents of Myanmar are now also fleeing to China, alongside other Kokang-based ethnic groups.

"The Myanmar government troops are targeting people who hold dual nationality, including Chinese passports," the missionary said.

"A lot of the ethnic Chinese businessmen from Laukkai have crossed the border into China,” he said. “According to my understanding, there are around 30,000 of them who have arrived in Nansan."

He said the Myanmar authorities were sending ethnic Chinese with dual citizenship to work mending railroads.

He said there is a general shortage of basic foodstuffs and other supplies.

"It's really medicines, tents, rice, cooking oil and salt [they lack]," the missionary said.

Northern Shan state

Ethnic Kokang are primarily based in northern Shan state and the minority group maintains a rebel army of around 3,000 troops under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Yun Sun, East Asia Program fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said the border region has always been an ethnically mixed area that eventually ended up as Myanmar's territory.

Sun, who visited the region in 2009, said the legal status of many residents of Kokang is undetermined, and that many identify as Chinese despite being referred to as ethnic Kokang by Myanmar officials.

"Some people there are Myanmar citizens, legally speaking, and in terms of their identity...but in the areas controlled by ethnic minorities, they don't have Myanmar ID cards," Sun told RFA.

"China's view is that the Kokang group is ethnically Chinese, and that even Peng Jiasheng, the king of Kokang, has his ancestral home in Sichuan," she said.

"This is actually true; [when I visited the] border area I found that the people there are [Chinese] in terms of their appearance, the languages they speak," Sun said. "They use Chinese currency, and even Chinese networks for their cell phone services."

"They have no problems speaking Mandarin," she said.

The MNDAA was formerly part of a China-backed guerrilla force called the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and became the first of about a dozen factions to sign a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the government after the group broke apart in 1989.

However, the agreement faltered in 2009 when armed groups came under pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar's military—a move the MNDAA resisted.

Peng (also known as Phone Kya Shin) left the Kokang self-administered zone, which the MNDAA had controlled, during a government push into the territory that year.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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