From the Frontline: On Chinese Border, Kokang Conflict Halts New Year Celebrations

By Zarni Mann 19 February 2015

CHIN SHWE HAW, Kokang Special Region — Every year, the town of Chin Shwe Haw heralds the Chinese New Year in the customary style. In other circumstances, lanterns and banners would hang from light posts as a dragon dance procession snakes through the streets to the din of gongs and the crack of fireworks.

This year, the streets of the Sino-Chinese border town are silent. Sitting 32-kilometers south of Laukkai, where the Burma Army and ethnic Kokang insurgents have been fighting pitched battles since Feb. 9, Chin Shwe Haw is now all but deserted.

Only around 20 people are left in town, guarding their homes and businesses from burglars. Soldiers and police guard Chin Shwe Haw’s entrances, halting cars, motorcycles and occasional foot traffic to check the identification and belongings of those passing through from the north. On the streets, dogs and chickens roam free, picking through piles of trash scattered around closed shops.

“No matter what happens, our safety is foremost,” said Xian Xue, a Kokang resident of Chin Shwe Haw who was leaving to cross the Chinese border. “Our safety is more important than celebrating the new year. We’re afraid of everyone with weapons.”

Her elderly mother and her four-year-old daughter are accompanying her, carrying blankets and clothes in plastic bags. Since there were no trishaws, motorcycles or taxis, the trio walked along an empty highway towards China.

Most of the residents of Chin Shwe Haw fled out of fears that violence would spread to the area. The family of Thi Thi Cho, a grocery store owner eagerly listening to the news for any word on the fighting, has no choice but to stay.

“We have no friends or family in China and we don’t have the courage to go all the way back to Rangoon, leaving all our belongings here…I hope nothing happens now that the region has been taken over by the army,” she said. “We will welcome the new year with a quiet family dinner. We pray that there will be no more fighting, but peace in the region.”

According to the few local residents left, China has prohibited using fireworks in this year’s celebrations, concerned they will be mistaken for gunfire.

While locals keep indoors, refugees from Laukkai stream through the town.

A group of 21 young men and women, along with two young boys, reached the town a few minutes after Xian Xue’s family passed through the security checkpoint. They said they were workers from Magwe Division who traveled to the border to work in a sugar plantation north of Laukkai town.

“Since our boss ran away, we decided to go back empty-handed for our safety. It’s been about two and a half days walk to reach the Chinese border. Then we came here,” said Aung Naing Oo, one of the workers.

From there, the group traveled west to Kunlong with the help of local authorities and NGO workers, where they will rest before proceeding to Lashio.

New year celebrations in Kunlong, 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Chin Shwe Haw, have also been subdued, as residents dolefully listened to stories from the Laukkai exodus.

“We will only have a quiet family gathering,” said Aye Kyin, a Kunlong shopkeeper, of her Chinese New Year plans. “Our children want to play with fireworks but we will not allow them to. There’s no restrictions from the government, but we restricted ourselves so as not to frighten the neighbors.”

Most of the residents of Kunlong say they are alert and prepared to leave the town if the conflict spills further south.

“Kunlong is less than 100 miles from Laukkai. We have to leave if the fighting gets closer. Now, we are waiting and always listening to what will happen next,” Aye Kyin said.

At a refugee center in Lashio, where people had gathered to rest for resuming their journeys back into the Burmese hinterlands, the mood was similarly reserved.

Locals there said that the celebrations lacked the usual hallmarks of the Chinese New Year—the dance of the Chinese dragons and the sounds of drums and firecrackers.

“If there was no fighting in Laukkai, Lashio would be full of dance groups,” Sai Win Min, a resident of Lashio, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “We pray on this New Year’s Day that the conflict will end, and peace comes back as soon as possible.”