Fighting between Kokang rebels and Myanmar troops in Laukkai in northern Shan state has forced a wave of more than 20,000 refugees across the border into China, and another roughly 1,600 residents to seek refuge in the town of Lashio, Myanmar monks and villagers said Wednesday.
“We have settled them in a temporary camp near the Chinese border about a mile from [border] milestone 125,” a Myanmar Buddhist monk named Kathera who resides in China told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday. “They are being well looked after.”
Others sought shelter in the homes of friends and relatives, he said.
Administrative officials and nongovernmental organizations are providing assistance to those who fled to Lashio, the largest town in Shan state, said Ponnyananda, the Buddhist abbot of Aungmingalar Mansu Monastery.
“We had more than 1,600 people here during the first two days [after the attack],” he said. “We gave them meals and later arranged cars for them to return home. About eight or nine cars took some of them back yesterday, and another eight or nine will leave today.”
Some shots were still heard on Tuesday evening, and about 20 shells have landed on Chinese territory, said a Myanmar villager who did not give his name.
Shrapnel from the fighting injured a migrant worker on Wednesday, he said.
Fighting broke out early Monday when 30 soldiers from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the formal name of the Kokang army, attacked police and military posts and civilian buildings, leaving about 30 people—police, civilians, and insurgents—dead.
Ongoing hostilities between Kokang fighters and government forces on Tuesday left six more civilians dead and forced thousands of residents and migrant workers to leave Laukkai, locals said.
‘Shells and bullets are flying’
Residents of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, meanwhile, have shut themselves inside their homes amid the intense fighting just across the border, sources told RFA on Wednesday.
Local Chinese residents said there is now a strong military presence at the border checkpoint in Nansan, which now appears to have been closed.
An ethnic Chinese resident of Kokang surnamed Feng told RFA that he had crossed the border into the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan to escape the recent fighting.
He said he is now in the border township of Nansan along with many other refugees.
"We are all hiding here in our rooms," Feng said. "We dare not go out to shoot any video, because the shells and bullets are flying around."
"We are just hiding out here in the room; this is a war," he said. "We have been lucky just to get back to China safely."
A volunteer surnamed Yuan who was helping the refugees said his group has been scrambling to provide food and shelter for civilians who poured across the border when the fighting started.
"The clashes are continuing in Kokang, with shelling which we can hear from this side of the border," he said. "Some shells fired by the Myanmar government troops are falling on this side of the border, and some of the buildings have been damaged."
"You can see houses that have sustained shell damage here and there, but nobody has been killed or injured," Yuan said. "The firing is coming from the government troops’ positions and the Kokang government positions, not from the Chinese side."
Yuan said schools in Nansan were closed on Wednesday because of the fighting, but would likely resume class on Thursday.
Police patrols have also been stepped up around the township, most of which is out of the line of fire, he said.
"Everyone here wants peace, the security of their country," he said. "Nobody wants war."
"We have been hearing reports of deaths filtering through in the past couple of days, but the figures are those issued by the Myanmar government troops, so it's very hard for the real figures to reach the outside world," Yuan said.
"Nobody really knows how many casualties the Kokang side has sustained, but there haven't been any on the Chinese side of the border," he said.
‘Chinese troops on the streets’
An official who answered the phone at the Chinese embassy in Myanmar declined to comment on the situation.
"I don't know what's going on with them; that's not the job of our department," the official said. "I'm not the embassy spokesperson."
A resident of Nansan surnamed Liu confirmed the closure of local schools on Wednesday.
"We are a few hundred meters from the national border, and there is a strong security presence there; they're not letting anyone through," Liu said.
"There are Chinese troops on the streets, but not very many. I think they were heading to the border crossing to protect it," she said.
"The schools have closed today because the teachers thought the kids wouldn't be able to focus on their studies," Liu said. "The parents are all keeping a close eye on their kids, not letting them go outside and run around."
"There are a lot of stray bullets flying around near the border, but nobody is allowed to report it," she said.
China has called for an immediate cease-fire and restoration of order along the border area.
A second refugee surnamed Liu said the majority of refugees are ethnic Chinese who are being well-treated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, even though they live and work in Myanmar.
"The government is particularly concerned about the refugees because they are all ethnic Chinese, and they are providing emergency aid," Liu said.
"Some came across before the fighting started, because they knew there was going to be fighting beforehand," he said. "Some Chinese came through yesterday; they do business on the other side."
"There were a lot of them," he said.
He said reports had emerged of heavy losses after government troops failed to hold Laukkai, capital of the Kokang region.
The MNDAA are said to have initiated the assault on government troops and police in retaliation for Myanmar army troops attacking Kokang territory.
Brigadier General Nyo Tun Aung, a spokesman of the Northern Alliance—a coalition of four ethnic armed groups including the MNDAA—told RFA on Tuesday that the ethnic militias will not lay down their arms, but are open to political discussions to resolve the conflict.
Shan State Army clash
In a related development, insurgents from the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) clashed with government army troops on Tuesday night near the town of Hsipaw in northern Shan state, said lieutenant Colonel Sai Meng, the militia’s spokesman.
“Government troops from Light Infantry Regiments Nos. 502 and 243 launched an attack on our RCSS camp near the Homu village tract in Hsipaw township,” he told RFA.
“They have been saying that the Tatmadaw [government army] is under the government according to the present constitution, but what we are seeing is the Tatmadaw doing whatever they want,” he said.
The RSCC/SSA seized some weapons from the government troops, but casualty numbers are not known, Sai Meng said.
Though the fighting in the township has subsided, and the situation calmed down this morning, the two sides are poised for more clashes near RCSS camps in the Htanseng and Pahkar areas north of Hsipaw, he said.
Calls to officials in Myanmar’s Ministry of Defense went unanswered.
The latest hostilities in volatile northern Shan state come as the Myanmar government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for another round of peace talks scheduled for this month in a bid to end decades of civil wars that have plagued the country and prevented it from further development.
She has urged the ethnic armed groups to stop the fighting that has caused deaths and problems for citizens, and to move forward with peace talks.
Reported by Kan Thar and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service, Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin and Luisetta Mudie.