Chinese nationals in the southwestern province of Yunnan are involved in volunteer work and the moving of medical supplies across the border to rebel forces fighting government troops in northeastern Myanmar, local sources told RFA on Monday.
The fighting erupted 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, the government has heavily mined the border area, and volunteers have come from China to help close off the minefields in recent days.
"Some nongovernment youth groups came over to help out and sealed off the area," the official, who gave only a single name, Pai, said on Monday.
"On the border at Yingjiang county, [the Myanmar government] has laid a lot of mines and explosives," Pai, a former deputy health minister in a pre-2009 regional administration, said.
Rebels in retreat
Myanmar Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo told journalists at the weekend that the Kokang rebels were in retreat in spite of help from Chinese mercenaries and other ethnic armed groups.
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.
The government-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said last week that the TNLA, the KIA, and part of the SSA have allied themselves with Peng.
Across the border in Yunnan, a resident of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture surnamed Long said many people in the region have wanted to help the rebel effort by sending supplies, including medical supplies, across the border.
"But a lot of places got into a lot of trouble when the authorities found out they were doing this," Long said.
He said local people had been sending supplies over the border to aid the rebel effort and the people caught in the conflict.
"[The authorities] don't interfere too much if it's a question of rice, oil and salt, that kind of thing," Long said.
"But medical supplies can be sent straight to the front line to treat the wounded, and so the Chinese government won't let them send them," he said. "The Myanmar government won't allow it either."
"So these supplies are mostly sent through secret channels," Long added.
Many are killed
More than 50 military troops and 70 Kokang rebels have been killed in fighting since Feb. 9, according to the Myanmar government.
According to Pai, the Kokang alliance has yet to make a full casualty count.
"The figures reported by ... government radio are only a part of the full casualty toll," he said. "Some of them aren't being reported."
"I heard that there were a great many dead and injured, and that many of the hospitals are completely full."
Pai estimated the number of government casualties at "around 300," with slightly less on the Kokang side.
He said the fighting had intensified over the weekend. "One of their artillery emplacements was captured by [Kokang forces], who won a large battery, so the government brought out the helicopters and armored vehicles."
"There will be more heavy fighting in the Kokang region to come," he said.
The KIA has officially denied fighting alongside the MNDAA.
Meanwhile, across the border in Yunnan, refugees are still arriving at several major camps in the province, local sources told RFA.
Crossing into China
A Protestant missionary worker said at least 100,000 refugees are now on the Chinese side of the border, with the majority clustered in Dehong's Longchuan and Yingjiang counties.
"People are continually coming across the border because of the fighting in Myanmar," he said. "Some of them are ethnic Chinese, some are Kachin and some are Lisu."
"I am currently serving here, and there are 100,000 people in total, mostly in two areas, Longchuan and Yingjiang," he said. "No. 17 refugee camp is in Kachang township, Yingjiang, and also we have No. 54 refugee camp in Longchuan."
"No. 17 refugee camp is where the largest number of people are."
The MNDAA on Sunday denied responsibility for an attack on an aid vehicle in Kokang that left five people injured, including an aid worker.
The vehicle carrying 13 people, mostly civilians and national journalists, was attacked Saturday afternoon as it traveled from Laukkai, according to the Myanmar Red Cross.
Local relief workers suspended operations in the region last week after a similar attack on a Red Cross convoy left two aid workers injured.
But MNDAA spokesman Htun Myat Lin said the army was trying to "flare up" tensions between rebels and civilians.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.