RANGOON — Displaced civilians who have returned to the Kokang Special Region capital of Laukkai said living conditions in the battle-damaged town remain difficult as authorities have failed to provide them with food, shelter and basic amenities, while fighting continues not far from the town in northern Shan State.
Ko Ko Oo said he and his family returned to Laukkai from Lashio on April 21, after authorities had called on civilians to come back as the situation in the town had returned to normal.
He said that upon his return he found that fighting was raging several kilometers from the town and gunfire could be heard frequently, while authorities were failing to adequately help families meet basic needs or find them places to live.
Ko Ko Oo said his family and a group of internally displaced civilians who had returned from Lashio were placed in a local school building, only to be asked to vacate it a week later.
The government, he said, “told us they would arrange everything, including water and electricity, when we arrived back in Laukkai. But then, all of us were asked to leave the [ethnic] Kokang school by April 28 where we were put up… They said the Chinese schools would be re-opened on May 1.”
Mee Mee, a volunteer helping displaced families in Lashio, said several families had come back from Laukkai in recent days as authorities had asked them to leave the schools where they had been given refuge.
Ko Ko Oo said nearly all buildings in Laukkai were damaged or looted and some were completely destroyed. He said farm owners asked returning laborers to harvest sugarcane from the fields, but workers were scared to do so because of the possible presence of landmines and unexploded ordinance.
Nandar Myint Aung, another Laukkai resident who recently returned from Lashio, said, “For the time being, we were given a bag of rice, a bottle of oil, a packet of peas and a packet of salt to eat. But the rice is wet and yellowish; we can’t eat it at all.”
“[The government] does not provide security [for us] to go back to Lashio. Around 20 people have gone back to Lashio on their own accord. We have no money to go back. We’ve got a shelter, but have no food. At nights, we dare not light a candle. We worry,” she said.
Fighting broke out in the Kokang Special Region on Feb. 9 after Kokang rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA) launched attacks on security forces stationed in and around Laukkai.
Following weeks of heavy fighting, the government recaptured Laukkai in March and declared the town to be safe for civilians to return.
Tens of thousands of civilians fled the clashes, the majority of whom were from the ethnic Chinese Kokang minority. They crossed the border into nearby China, where many remain. Some 15,000 Burmese laborers, who had been employed in Laukkai as farm and construction workers, fled south to Lashio and Mandalay in central Burma.
A Shan State lawmaker has previously estimated that as many as 60 civilians were killed during the fighting, while a human rights group said it documented at least half a dozen cases of right violations by the army against Kokang civilians.
Burma Army troops continue to comb the rugged mountains around the town and along the border for MNDAA rebels, who are putting up fierce resistance and claim to have killed dozens of soldiers in recent weeks.