Much of the civilian population of northern Myanmar's Kokang region has now fled towns and villages close to the Chinese border for fear of violence, including rape, at the hands of government troops, an ethnic Kokang alliance spokesman said on Friday.
Myanmar's army is fighting the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebel forces under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, who is trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which it had controlled until 2009.
"Basically, none of the local population now remains," an MNDAA spokesman surnamed Song told RFA in an interview.
"The population was previously counted at 150,000-160,000, and they have basically gone," Song said. "The women and girls have all run away because the government soldiers will rape them."
Chinese aid workers estimated the refugee population on the Chinese side of the border in neighboring Yunnan province at around 100,000 last week.
But government troops have been targeting refugee camps in a bid to persuade ethnic Kokang civilians to return to the regional capital of Laukkai, where the fighting began on Feb. 9.
Photos from Laukkai seen by RFA in recent days show virtually deserted streets, and refugees in the border region said they would only make brief visits back to Kokang to check on their homes and belongings, and to scavenge for food and other supplies that are running short in the camps.
Song said ethnic Kokang civilians who do return are often attacked by government forces.
"[On Thursday], there was a kid called Yang Longsai who had stayed behind to look after the family home, but they dragged him into the streets and stripped him naked, looking for money," Song said.
"He only had two yuan [in Chinese currency] but they took it anyway."
He said government soldiers are now looting homes in Laukkai and the surrounding area.
"They are taking food and any usable items from people's homes," Song said. "If people try to resist, or simply if they are young, they will beat them up so badly that they have to go to hospital."
"The same thing happened in another village, called Dashuitang," he said.
Song said the MNDAA and their allies, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and part of the Shan State Army (SSA), have retaliated in recent days against attacks by government forces on civilians.
An attack on the home of regional administrator Pae Shauk Chan in the early hours of Wednesday was a response to the summary execution of two ethnic Kokang youths who refused to surrender to government forces, Song said.
Refugees who fled Laukkai said they had returned briefly to the town on Friday amid a temporary cease-fire following two days of heavy shelling between government troops and rebel forces.
"I have just arrived back in Laukkai city, where things are slightly more stable than they were," an ethnic Kokang resident told RFA. "People are both arriving and leaving, but the majority are leaving."
"There are some civilians here. Some of the shops are even open, and the Myanmar army is still here," the man said.
He said some people had found their homes damaged or destroyed.
"Some are just here to take some of their belongings from their homes, including food and so on," the man said.
Candy and noodles
A second Kokang resident said government soldiers were trying to ease tensions with the local population following reports of summary executions of civilians earlier this week.
"They are handing out candy and telling people to come home to Laukkai," the man said. "The regional military commanders are here, and they gave out some candy and some instant noodles."
"I heard that the men have to salute and the women have to bow, and then when they've received [the candy] they can get back into Laukkai."
A local resident surnamed Li said the army had also called on local residents to report the names of anyone missing, but that nothing had then been done about them.
"If they confirm that they are holding them and not the MNDAA, then they'll release them," Li said. "My friend's husband is missing, and she planned to go and report it, but then she saw that everyone was lined up and that they were handing out candy and noodles."
"She saw a line of government soldiers lined up in a firing posture pointing their guns at the people in the line," Li said.
"After that, they didn't do anything about the missing people, but just took everyone to the No. 125 refugee camp [on the Kokang side of the Chinese border]," she said.
"There were photos in the newspapers, as if to say that the army was welcoming people home with candy, but they had lured them there, and then they just took them back to the refugee camp after that," Li said.
"There were some people who got beaten up when they came back to their homes by themselves," she added.
Most still in China
According to the MNDAA's Song, the majority of ethnic Kokang are still in China, although groups of refugees were clustered on the Myanmar side of the border.
"They are dependent on ethnic Kokang volunteers, who bring donations of food and supplies directly to them," he said.
Peng returned from exile at an unknown border location after his defeat in 2009, launching an attack with troops who had previously infiltrated Laukkai town on Feb. 9.
Experts say 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.
The MNDAA, which has its roots in the China-backed Communist Party of Burma which disbanded in 1989, on Wednesday denied Myanmar government claims that Chinese mercenaries are fighting alongside rebel forces in Kokang.
Beijing has said its humanitarian aid for Kokang refugees should not be regarded as a show of support for either side, and has denied any involvement in the conflict.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.