Updated on Aug. 28
HONG KONG—Thousands of Burmese refugees are flooding into China after military clashes in Kokang, a majority Chinese region close to the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan.
"I have just got back from the refugee camps in [Yunnan]," a netizen identified as modi7705 wrote on the popular Chinese Web portal Baidu.
"From time to time, some more people come into the camp after sounds of gunfire and they are beset with questions about the situation on the other side of the border," he wrote.
"There are a lot of women and children, including a young woman who gave birth to her baby only four days ago. You can smell disinfectant everywhere. It's not a very clean place. Everyone is sleeping on the floor."
Official media reports confirmed online accounts of refugee camps near Yunnan's Zhenkang city.
"[Burma] residents are flooding into Yunnan province in southwest China Thursday amid a domestic war, the provincial government said," Xinhua news agency said in an urgent bulletin.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB) said "tens of thousands of ethnic people" had fled the region, as China's Chongqing Evening Post reported that up to 10,000 refugees had arrived in the border town of Nansan.
In a statement on its Web site, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set the numbers much higher.
"Our information is that as many as 30,000 people may have taken shelter in Nansan county since Aug. 8, saying they were fleeing fighting between Myanmar [Burma] government troops and ethnic minority groups."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu told reporters Friday that Beijing is concerned about the confrontation and hopes Burma can solve the domestic issue in order to preserve the regional stability of its border area with China.
China is watching the issue and has informed Burma of its position through diplomatic channels, she said.
"We also urge Myanmar [Burma] to protect the safety and legal rights of Chinese citizens in Myanmar," Jiang said.
Residents of the Burmese region of Kokang interviewed last week said the exodus from the region, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese, began early this month.
"The Burmese military government has prepared to attack Kokang several times, and a lot of Kokang residents have begun moving over the border back into China," the resident said.
Ou Zhaobin, former editor of the Kokang government Web site, said most ethnic Chinese had already left Kokang, and that many Burmese also had gone to China in recent days.
"The disturbances started a few days ago. The hotels on the Chinese side around Nansan are all packed with people," Ou said.
Employees who answered the phone at hotels and guesthouses around Nansan township near Yunnan's Zhenkang city confirmed separately that they were all full of guests, and that the situation in the town was unstable.
According to Baidu poster Modi7705, at least four people were shot trying to cross the border, but it was unclear whether they had been killed.
"They have put up speakers and people are shouting things over them on this side of the border," he wrote from a border region of Yunnan.
"We can't hear anything properly inside the house, but it sounds like a leader trying to calm everybody down. Actually the organization is pretty good here. The refugees coming across the border are very appreciative of China's abilities. They don't believe that the Burmese army will dare to cross the border."
"One Burmese woman asked me if the Chinese army had arrived at the scene. They are hoping China will step in and mediate the conflict. But I don't really see what can be done other than diplomatic efforts, and taking care of the refugees," he said.
Ethnic differencesAround 90 percent of Kokang's population is ethnic Chinese, speaking a southwestern dialect of Mandarin.
The region was turned into a special economic zone by the Burmese military government in recent years, by agreement with the local authorities.
A 2008 ceasefire with Burma's military rulers expires this year, and the apparent military action seems to have come in response to a splitting of the Kokang leadership.
“The Kokang organization split into two factions [Wednesday] morning," regional military affairs expert Aung Kyaw Zaw said.
"Mainly the leadership split in two factions, but the armed forces are still under the control of [regional commander] Peng Jiasheng."
Kokang, a mountainous region of 2,700 square kms, has a complicated history, changing hands from China's Qing Dynasty to British rule, and then to an uneasy federal relationship with the Burmese junta.
The region is controlled by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led by ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, based in the border town of Laokai.
The city and administration have now been taken over by Peng's former deputy Bai Souqian, Burmese sources in the region said.
Crackdown ahead of elections
U.S. Campaign for Burma director Jeremy Woodrum said the military move against Kokang is part of a larger campaign against armed ethnic insurgencies intended to maintain the Burmese regime's chokehold on power ahead of planned elections next year.
The 2010 polls would be the first since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power.
"In June, the regime was carrying out attacks against the Karen ethnic minority, and at least 5,000 refugees fled into Thailand. Those attacks are not done. There appears to be a little bit of a lull, but we expect them to ramp up again," Woodrum said.
"Now they're going after the Kokang. I think that will expand to the Wa and possibly to the Kachin in northern Burma. Those all appear [to be an effort] to try to remove the last vestiges of ethnic autonomy before the election," he said.
Woodrum called the pressure on the Kokang, an ethnic group that had a ceasefire agreement in place for nearly 20 years, "qualitatively different and new."
"It was a strategic ceasefire on the regime's part so they could ramp up the size of their military and have enough forces to overrun the area," Woodrum said.
"These are the first shots fired in the region in 20 years," he said.
Fighting in Shan state
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese junta to immediately end attacks against civilians after thousands were displaced in Shan state.
It said that the Burmese army had reportedly deployed battalions to clear civilians from large areas in central Shan state between July 27-Aug.1, burning down more than 500 houses as they attacked 39 villages in the area.
The New York-based organization said it believed the operation was part of an intensified campaign against Shan State Army-South, an insurgent group that operates in the area.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Bat Tze-mo, and in Burmese by Zaw Moe Kyaw. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.