Several thousand residents of the Kokang region in northern Shan State have fled into neighboring China’s Yunnan Province to escape ongoing heavy fighting between the Burma Army and Kokang ethnic rebels, according to a rebel spokesman, who said that the army launched numerous airstrikes in recent days.
Htun Myat Lin, general-secretary of the Kokang rebel group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said residents had fled the area around the town of Laukkai in northern Burma.
“More local residents fled their homes because the Burma Army used planes to bomb yesterday and they fired artillery at night. They used jet fighter and helicopters. They [residents] became more nervous,” he told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
He claimed that up to 10,000 local residents and Chinese traders fled across the Burma-China border into Yunnan Province to escape the escalation in the fighting.
A MNDAA member residing in Yunnan Province close to the border said about 2,000 refugees had crossed into southern China in recent days. He said the refugees were taking shelter in the towns of Zhengkang and Nanping in Yunnan Province, adding that road links between Yunnan Province and the border were temporarily closed off by Chinese authorities.
A Chinese academic in the Yunnan capital Kunming said authorities were preparing shelter, food, running water and health care for the refugees. He added that Chinese authorities had sent troops to the Burma-China border to strengthen security.
News agency Reuters quoted a Chinese foreign affairs spokeswoman on Tuesday as saying that refugees from Burma had entered Yunnan Province and “have been looked after.”
Htun Myat Lin said the MNDAA and its allies the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and fighters of the Arakan Army and Shan State Army–North were confronting the Burma Army, which has been sending reinforcements to the region.
The Kokang official claimed that the army deployed Russian-made helicopter gunships, the Mi-35, as well as Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets to bomb and strafe rebel positions in Laukkai Township. He added that the strikes had avoided hitting targets near the town.
A video obtained by The Irrawaddy on Tuesday purportedly shows a recent airstrike being carried out by an attack helicopter in the region.
In recent days, rebels reportedly attacked and overran an army outpost in Mawhtike town.
Htun Myat Lin said rebel attacks had continued. “We launched an attack last evening in Laukkai town. We destroyed two buildings that belonged to the Burmese authorities. We lost a soldier in the attack,” he said, adding that two Kokang soldiers had died and one had been injured in recent fighting.
Tar Parn La, an official from TNLA’s foreign affairs department, said fighting between the Burma Army and TNLA troops broke out in four areas near Laukkai town between 2 am to 6 am on Wednesday morning.
“The Burma Army has been reinforcing its troops. They are sending more troops from Light Infantry Division . We don’t know the exact number of troops. But we got reports that they were carried in more than 40 trucks. Some of them were already deployed in Laukkai town, and others are waiting for deployment,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Northern Burma has seen increased clashes in recent months between government forces and the KIA, the TNLA and MNDAA, all of which lack a bilateral ceasefire with Naypyidaw. In December, clashes first erupted in the Kokang region and fighting has spread there since.
It is unclear how many casualties both sides have sustained in the recent fighting. The Burma Army lacks an official spokesperson and has not released any statements about the clashes. State-run media on Tuesday ran an article that said that “renegade groups of Kokang have ambushed the troops of the Tatmadaw.”
Attempts at reaching a nationwide ceasefire accord between the government, army and an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups, including the KIA and TNLA, hit a deadlock in recent months.
The Kokang are an ethnic Chinese minority living in a mountainous area between the Salween River and China border, which is part of a self-administered zone granted to the Kokang in the 2008 Constitution. A 2009 Burma Amy offensive crushed the MNDAA and its influence in the region, and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing into China.
At the time, the army raided the Laukkai home of Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng. In late December, the octogenarian leader told Chinese state media in an interview that the MNDAA was trying to regain some territories it lost in 2009.
The Kokang leaders supported the Communist Party of Burma until it disintegrated in 1989 and fell apart into a number of armed ethnic groups, including the well-armed, 20,000-man strong United Wa State Army, who are believed to be supporting the Kokang and other armed groups in northern Burma with arms and ammunitions.
Additional reporting from Hong Kong, China, Echo Hui.