From the Frontline: Street Warfare in Laukkai

By Kyaw Myo Tun 18 February 2015

LAUKKAI, Kokang Special Region — Abandoned vehicles are riddled with bullet holes. Most apartment buildings and shops are shuttered and locked, with no signs of life inside. Except for the occasional muffled footsteps from one or two people furtively walking down the streets, the silence during the day is deep and lingering. At night, it is a different story.

These were the scenes in the Kokang administrative capital of Laukkai this week, after thousands of people fled the fighting between the Burma Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MDNAA).

By Monday the Burma Army’s was strengthening its hold on the town, with soldiers from the 33rd Division patrolling the streets. After more than a week of fighting led to heavy casualties on both sides, government troops were wary. On one street corner, a soldier hurriedly raised his gun and aimed at figure emerging onto the street from a hidden alleyway 100 meters away, visibly relaxing when he concluded, after a moment, that the man was not a threat.

Nearby, a group of people carrying nothing more than bundles of clothes stood at a junction, waiting for the arrivals of rescue vehicles alongside members of the Red Cross for an evacuation to Kunlong, 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the south.

Hla Htay, a villager from central Magwe Division who traveled to Laukkai for work in a local sugarcane plantation, told The Irrawaddy that his employer had fled to China early last week, leaving without paying wages to plantation workers.

“We stayed here because we did not expect the clashes to be so violent,” he said. “Finally, we could not stay at our homes and we had to sleep at the [Burma Army] regional command headquarters for five days. There was gunfire every night. We could not even get to sleep.”

Locals reported that some Chinese business owners had paid Burmese workers generous wages to guard their properties before heading across the border to escape the conflict.

“I get 200 Yuan [32,800 kyats, or US$32] for a night. Previously, all I could possibly earn for the whole month was between 2000 to 2500 Yuan [328,000-411,000 kyats, or US$320-400]. Now, I get threefold,” said Zaw Gyi, a former resident of Monywa, who on Monday was guarding the Suan Fu Machine Shop in Laukkai.

Kokang soldiers still operating on Monday were making sporadic assaults on regional command headquarters and police stations in the town. According to a senior military official, the Kokang rebels attacked regional command headquarters in Laukkai on Sunday evening, withdrawing after the Burma Army repulsed the troops.

A solider from the 33rd Division said that government forces had the upper hand in the battle, and were doing as much as possible to avoid civilian casualties.

“[The Kokang soldiers] ambushed us in mufti. They also shot at us from buildings and hotels. But they dare not come out at all now. They are also trapped and surrounded by us,” he said.

More than 50 civilians are feared dead after more than a week of fighting. The Irrawaddy has confirmed that at least 15 people, including a school headmistress and two female teachers, died in a car crash while fleeing Laukkai.

Huo Shao Chen, a lawmaker from the Shan State Parliament’s Kunlong constituency, told The Irrawaddy that more than 20,000 war refugees were now taking shelter in the Chinese border town of Nansan. Others have sought refuge in Lashio, Muse and Mandalay.

“We could take nothing when we fled the fight,” said Su Su Thin, a Laukkai refugee currently in Nansan with her family, adding that her grandmother was currently recuperating after being shot in the leg during their escape.

“We recovered 17 bodies today,” Kyaw Zaw Htoo, head of the district Red Cross, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “We don’t know if they are civilians or armed fighters. Among the bodies are only two or three [ethnic Burmese].”

Government troops seized over 100 weapons and more than 30 members of the MNDAA were killed in action over the weekend. State-run media have confirmed at least 48 Burma Army deaths and 73 injuries since the conflict began on Feb. 9.

Ongoing clashes are fiercer than those during the Kokang Incident six years earlier, locals said, adding that most fighting was taking place after sunset.

According to reports, fighting flared up once again late on Monday evening.

“There was heavy shelling throughout the night,” said Kyi Myint on Tuesday, after fleeing Tongcheng ward in Laukkai. “I felt as if they just whizzed past my head, even though I was hiding in a room. They were still firing at 9am today (Feb. 17). I won’t dare to stay here any longer.”

At present, around 200 to 300 Burmese workers are still stranded in Laukkai, according to Kyaw Zaw Htoo.

Rescue workers said on Monday that many of those still in town are hiding in sugarcane plantations and inside their homes, too afraid of being attacked to head out onto the streets and approach rescue vehicles.

“I do want to go back,” said Htay Oo, who has stayed behind during the fighting to guard the Suan Fu Machine Shop with Zaw Gyi. “I have already sent back my family members. There are not many jobs if I go back to Burma. I have to stay here for my livelihood.”

Additional reporting by Nang Seng Nom.