Authorities in the conflict-torn northern Myanmar border region of Kokang have detained three Chinese citizens on suspicion of spying for the Chinese military, local sources said on Thursday.
Li Nan, Mu Tengfei and a driver identified only by a nickname Xiao Wang were detained by government troops during a security check on the Myanmar side of the border with China's Yunnan province on suspicion of spying for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), according to a volunteer at a refugee school in the vicinity.
"They ... were caught by Myanmar government troops while they were out hiking," a volunteer at a school for refugee children in Kokang told RFA.
"They called us three times [on Wednesday] but now we are unable to reach them," the volunteer, surnamed Xu, said. "There is a message saying their cellphones have been switched off."
Xu described the men as wearing army-issue vests and shorts, adding that Myanmar troops had become suspicious after seeing that their cellphones contained photos of other people in military-type clothing.
But Xu denied the three men were spies.
"They were volunteers, who had been here a couple of months," he said.
Tensions are already running high between China and Myanmar as the Kokang conflict has spilled over the border repeatedly in recent weeks.
In March, Myanmar acknowledged responsibility for a bomb mistakenly dropped in Yunnan province by its Air Force on March 13, killing five Chinese nationals, amid the ongoing conflict between government troops and ethnic rebels in the Kokang region of northeastern Shan state.
China responded to the bombing by mobilizing jet fighters along the border.
Kokang forces have also denied allegations that they have been recruiting demobilized PLA soldiers to fight Myanmar government forces in the region.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng 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.
A second volunteer in the region, who recruits teachers to help in refugee schools, said the men had gone hiking into the hills during a bout of fighting, describing them as "curious spectators."
"Li Nan, a teacher with us, was an ex-soldier ... he came here as a support teacher during his teacher training," the volunteer said.
"Things don't look good right now, because they have been designated Chinese military spies," the volunteer said.
"He had a lot of photos on his phone from his time in the military, but the Myanmar army lacks conclusive evidence," he said.
"We have a lot of evidence that shows he was a teacher here, including written materials, photos, and that he was doing his teaching practice."
He said Li and Mu had been selected from a website featuring student teachers looking to fulfill teaching practice requirements.
He said the Chinese government had yet to make an official response to the three men's arrest.
The Chahe Dam refugee camp school had taught some 200 children of families displaced by the conflict, but has now suspended operations indefinitely following the arrests, volunteers told RFA.
An official who answered the phone at the county police department in Yunnan's Lincang city, just across the border, confirmed the incident.
"Someone came here at 1.00 a.m. this morning to find us and report this matter," the officer said.
"This didn't take place inside China, so all we can do is report it to the higher authorities and wait for them to mediate," the officer said. "We reported it this morning."
"This has to do with diplomatic relations, so we police can't resolve it."
Border area off limits
The officer said police had been ordered not to approach the border area.
"We had a directive saying we mustn't go near the border areas, so how could Chinese citizens go there by themselves without the approval of the Chinese government?" he said.
An employee who answered the phone at a consular helpline for Chinese nationals in Myanmar said they too had received similar reports.
"We told them to get in touch with the main consulate in Mandalay," the employee said. "This area comes under the Mandalay consulate, who mediate any consular safety issues that happen there."
An employee who answered the Mandalay consular assistance helpline said they would report the incident to the consulate, "to see if they can render assistance."
But the employee added: "We don't have a grasp of the situation on the ground."
Sporadic fighting has continued in Kokang, in spite of peace talks in Yangon between the government and representatives of 16 armed ethnic groups that yielded a draft nationwide cease-fire agreement on March 31.
The MNDAA was not represented at the talks.
Last month, a group of 20 nationals from China were turned away by hundreds of angry villagers in the Kokang region of northeastern Myanmar's Shan state Friday after crossing the border and attempting to plant a flag declaring the area to be Chinese territory, according to a local ethnic party official.
The Chinese nationals, including armed border guards, crossed into the area near Muse town from China's Yunnan province and declared their intention to build a bridge across the Shweli (in Chinese, Ruili) river, local sources said at the time.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.