NANSAN, China—Men who say they were fighting Burmese government troops have poured into China, describing what they call the fall of their long-autonomous ethnic-Chinese region.
They report widespread bloodshed in Kokang in northeastern Burma’s Shan state after government troops moved in, trying to dislodge local rulers and their militia who have long controlled this mountainous terrain next to China.
Burma’s state-run media meanwhile said the situation has "returned to normal,” and that security forces have restored peace and handed local power to an interim administration. They said 26 police and soldiers have been killed and 47 wounded.
"The Kokang army has collapsed. We're all on the run," said Chen Bo, who arrived at the Chinese border town of Nansan on Sunday.
Chen said he is a Chinese national who had been fighting for the Kokang forces for money.
Chinese nationals caught up in the junta's offensive have accused Burmese troops of attacking civilian targets like businesses run by ethnic Chinese and said civilians also looted property left behind by refugees.
"After the Chinese in Kokang fled, after the Chinese businessmen left, the Burmese locals started ransacking ethnic Chinese businesses and property," Yao Fu, a Chinese doctor who had set up a hospital in Kokang, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.
"The Burmese military also was attacking Chinese businesses."
Kokang residents are mostly ethnic Han Chinese that speak Chinese and, according to exiled Burmese exiles, have received support for decades from China because of traditional ties to the Communist Party.
Tens of thousands of Kokang residents have fled to China's Yunnan province to escape the fighting, which followed a bid by Burma’s ruling junta that drove as many as 30,000 refugees into China and drew a rare rebuke from Beijing, the regime's most important ally.
In spite of fears for their treatment, they are now beginning to return.
The fighting erupted last week between government troops and members of a militia known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), breaking a ceasefire the government and the militia signed more than 20 years ago.
Call for calmThe ostensible spark for the clashes was a move against a gun-repair factory the government believed was being used as a front for narcotics manufacturing, but fighting escalated, with Burmese troops taking control of Laogai, the Kokang capital.
The violence intensified Saturday despite a call from China for calm. But witnesses on the border said it was calmer Sunday, in part because 700 NDAA fighters had fled across the border and surrendered their weapons to Chinese authorities.
The Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement on Friday calling on Burma to "properly handle domestic problems and maintain stability in the China-Burma border region.”
“We also urge Burma to protect the security and legal rights of Chinese citizens in Burma," it said.
The Kokang militia is one of 17 ethnic armies that have signed ceasefire agreements with the government which have mostly held for the last two decades.
Tensions have escalated, however, ahead of planned elections next year with a government demand that the groups convert their forces into border guard units under the command of the national army.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the regime's demand for the ethnic armies to join the border guard “would greatly reduce their autonomy and would represent a major concession in return for which they are being offered no political quid pro quo by the regime.”
The Kokang fighting has drawn in other groups including the United Wa State Army, which with some 20,000 fighters is the largest ethnic army.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma, an overseas opposition group, said on Saturday that it expects the government to move against other groups in the coming days.
Some 40 percent of Burma's 56 million people belong to an ethnic minority, with most concentrated in the highlands that abut the country's borders.
Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service and news agencies. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.