Heavy fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic Kokang rebels for control of Laukkai Township in the Kokang Special Region in northern Shan State in recent days has created a dangerous and chaotic situation in which dozens of civilians were possibly killed, a rebel source said.
Tar Parn La, a spokesperson for Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which is fighting alongside the Kokang rebels also known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), told The Irrawaddy that intense, close combat had taken place over the weekend in the town and surrounding mountainous areas.
Most residents are understood to have left the area since late last week, but Tar Parn La said sources of the front line told him that as many as 50 civilians could have been killed in recent fighting.
“We heard Burmese troops from Light Infantry Division (LID 33) killed everyone they come across in Laukkai. They raided homes and shoot people, even in daytime,” he said, adding that some of the civilians might have been killed for violating a Burma Army curfew.
MNDAA sources could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Chinese state media reports and unconfirmed posts of photos on social media showed shop houses looted and burned in the town. Images also appeared of apparent civilian casualties and residents being arrested by authorities.
Some 4,500 civilians, mostly migrant workers from central Burma and families of army and police personnel stationed in Kokang region, fled for Lashio, Pyin Oo Lwin and Mandalay over the weekend, where they were supported by the army and local authorities.
Thein Hteik, a migrant worker who arrived in Mandalay said, “All people ran away from home. Local military troops told us not to stay there because it is no safe. We, sixteen of us, left the town. Now, Laukkai is almost empty.”
“You don’t hear anything in daytime, but gunfire can be heard at night. We saw a helicopter come and open fire on the second day of the fighting,” he told an Irrawaddy reporter, adding that he had seen burned down houses.
Myint Myint Win, a mother of two who fled from Chin Shwe Haw, an area in Laukkai Township, said, “We were asked by the military to leave Chin Shwe Haw in advance [of the fighting]. They told us they will send us to a safe place. They asked us to get in trucks and we finally reached Mandalay.”
“As all people left the town, I and my family also have to leave even though we didn’t want to. We were doing well and earned a good income there [in Chin Shwe Haw]. Now, we are jobless,” said Myint Myint Win, who comes from Magwe Division.
Fighting escalated in the area after Feb. 9 and Kokang rebels, also known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), launched attacks on army and police stations in the town. The Burma Army sent reinforcements and launched airstrikes using Russian-made helicopters gunship and jet fighters; it reestablished control over the town over the weekend.
State media reported that, “Government troops encountered engagements with Kokang renegade groups in Laukkai on Saturday throughout their attempts to comb the town for security reasons.”
The report in the Global New Light of Myanmar said 26 rebels had been killed during the operations.
“Sporadic fighting continued all day long, with the army seizing 100 small arms, ammunitions, eight walkie-talkies, four laptops and narcotic drugs, killing 18 and capturing eight others, all of whom were seriously wounded,” the paper said. “The captured Kokang defectors all died of wounds they had suffered amid medical treatment given by the government troops.”
At least 47 government troops have been killed and 73 were wounded, state media reported last week. Rebel sources claimed they had suffered less than 10 casualties by the end of last week.
A front page article in state media on Monday featured Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing visiting wounded soldiers and civilians who fled from Laukkai to Lashio. It stated that the Burma Army troops “are waging the just war to defend the sovereignty of the state, monks and people are supporting them.”
The commander on Union Day accused other unnamed, rebel groups of supporting the Kokang, who number an estimated 1,000 fighters. “We have evidence of some ethnic armed groups being involved in the fight of Kokang renegade troops. They have to take responsibility for it,” he was quoted by state media as saying.
The TNLA and the Arakan Army have confirmed that they are supporting the MNDAA. The Kachin Independence Army is also believed to have sent fighters, while the powerful United Wa State Army is said to support the Kokang with arms and ammunition.
Additional reporting from Mandalay by Zarni Mann and from Lashio by JPaing.