HONG KONG—The Burmese army has wrested control of Burma’s northern Kokang region away from an insurgent ethnic army, as the United States voiced “deep concern” and called for restraint from Burma’s ruling junta.
“We urge the Burmese authorities to cease their military campaign and to develop a genuine dialogue with the ethnic minority groups, as well as with Burma’s democratic opposition,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement Monday.
Washington “is deeply concerned over the attacks by the Burma Army in eastern Burma against several ethnic nationality groups,” he said.
“The brutal fighting has forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes for safety in Thailand and China, and reduced both stability and the prospects for national reconciliation.”
Fighting between Burmese government troops and an ethnic Chinese armed group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) broke out last week, causing tens of thousands of Burmese to seek refuge in China’s southern Yunnan province.
In a statement Sunday, the Burmese government announced that eight rebel fighters and 26 members of security forces were killed in the clashes, adding that “the [Kokang] region has now regained peace.”
But Ou Zhaobin, former editor of the Kokang government Web site, said the casualties were much higher.
“The casualties of the Burmese government troops were quite high in the beginning of the fight. However, they increased the number of troops and the NDAA lost. The NDAA has surrendered,” Ou said.
“Burmese troops remain in the area, and Kokang autonomy has ceased to exist,” he said, adding that many of the refugees who fled to China lack basic necessities, including clothing.
The police chief of China’s Yunnan province, Meng Sutie, told a news conference Monday that “more than 30,000 Burmese border residents have entered into China” since Aug. 27 when the armed conflict began.
He added that Chinese civilians had also been killed in the crossfire.
“Three artillery shells fired from Burma into Chinese territory killed one and wounded two Chinese citizens.
Meanwhile, among Chinese citizens hiding from the fighting inside Burma, there are one dead and 13 wounded,” Meng said.
According to an AFP report, refugees were crossing back into Burma from the Nansan township on the border with Burma in groups of about 40 at a time, while only an occasional person crossed into China.
Yunnan provincial government spokesman Li Hui told reporters the Burmese government had requested through diplomatic channels that China send the refugees back across the border.
"Those who want to go back can return. We are finding that most of these people want to go back to their homes," Li Hui said, adding that more than 2,600 people had returned to Kokang by mid-afternoon.
China has provided the refugees in Nansan with tents, food, and medical care in seven camps in the area. Refugees were also being housed in several half-finished buildings.
Thirteen thousand refugees are now staying in camps, while 10,000-20,000 more are believed to be living with friends and relatives in and around Nansan, according to Chinese officials.
‘Lives are back to normal’
A shop owner surnamed Li, who runs a business in Nansan, said the situation in Kokang had returned to normal.
“The gunfire stopped around 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. The fighting is over,” Li said.
He added that although Burmese refugees are still staying in temporary shelters in Nansan, some have already returned home.
“There are no more Burmese refugees coming into China. The Chinese customs office has reopened. Our lives are back to normal now,” Li said.
Another Nansan resident said the Kokang region “is completely under the government army’s control.”
“The local Kokang army has collapsed, and its members have all fled. It is said that the government troops are expected to leave too,” the resident said.
A resident of Nansan familiar with the situation of the Chinese nationals wounded in Burma said they were now being treated back across the border.
“Those Chinese who were wounded in Burma are now being hospitalized in the Nansan County Hospital, while some Burmese are returning home,” the resident said.
But a resident of Kokang township said that while the Burmese army had moved into Kokang, a region of around 150,000 people, residents and soldiers alike were looting shops in its capital Laokai early on Sunday morning.
“A lot of investment in Kokang, such as motorcycle shops and other retailers, are all in ruins due to looting. It is completely chaotic because of the lack of administration,” said the resident, who declined to give his name.
“People are acting like thieves and robbers—everyone is breaking into shops. Even the soldiers are doing this—knocking down doors and taking things,” he said.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese analyst living near the border, said that refugees in China have been advised not to return to their homes because order has clearly not yet been restored to Kokang.
“Chinese troops are advising the refugees not to return to their homes, because they are monitoring the turmoil through binoculars over the border. Nonetheless, some refugees have returned to check on their belongings and properties,” Aung Kyaw Zaw said.
A Kokang refugee in Yunnan said the Chinese government was allowing the refugees to stay at the temporary camps for the time being.
“Only a very few Kokang residents have returned to protect their personal property,” the refugee said.
“However, many refugees are afraid to go back because many of the families have some kind of connection or relationship with the [Kokang] militia, and they are scared that the Burmese government will take revenge on them,” he added.
Other groups targeted
Clashes between government troops and the NDAA began after police raided an illegal weapons factory in the Kokang region on Aug. 8.
The attacks violated a 20-year ceasefire agreement that the NDAA negotiated with Burma’s junta in 1989 after fighting for autonomy in the region.
The group split after recent pressure from the Burmese government, which ordered the NDAA to come under its command as "border guard forces."
One group agreed to join the military while the other, led by regional leader Peng Jiasheng, refused.
That faction has since been pushed out of the region by military forces.
Even as the Burmese military has taken control of the Kokang region from the NDAA, the ruling junta has begun negotiations with another ethnic group seeking independence in the country’s northern Shan state.
An official from the Wa Special Region of Shan state surnamed Zheng said the ethnic group’s government has been in talks with the Burmese military government since Sunday, but that a confrontation seems inevitable.
“We are preparing to go to war, and we will not surrender. Right now we are recruiting retired veterans to join the fight,” Zheng said.
An attack on Wa territory could be the next tactic for the Burmese military regime, which is likely moving to secure control of its border regions ahead of planned elections next year.
In June, the military regime targeted Burma’s Karen ethnic minority, aided by a group of Karen Buddhists who attacked forces largely comprised of Karen Christians. At least 5,000 refugees fled into Thailand in the aftermath of those attacks.
Original reporting by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service, Bi Zhimu for RFA’s Cantonese service, and Ye Htet for RFA’s Burmese service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated by Ping Chen, Shiny Li, and Nyein Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.