RANGOON — Ethnic Kokang rebel forces fighting the Burma Army in northern Shan State issued a statement on Wednesday warning the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled to China not to return to the Kokang Special Region as it remains unsafe.
In a Burmese-language statement, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) accused the Burmese government of trying to encourage the return of ethnic Kokang civilians, who fled from the Kokang region administrative capital Laukkai to nearby China in great numbers in recent weeks.
“We found that there are some people from the Burmese police who pretend to be refugees and went to refugee camps on the Chinese side. They tried to persuade the refugees to go back to the Laukkai,” the MNDAA said. “But it is very dangerous to force people to go back to the region, as we found that the police and army continue to kill people who came back as they suspect them of being rebels.”
An article by army-owned newspaper Myawaddy on Thursday said locals were returning to Laukkai “as stability has been restored.” It said 1,314 people from 389 families had returned from Feb 22-24 and were welcomed by the army and local authorities with “noodles, soft drinks and snacks.”
The MNDAA said it was telling refugees not to believe reports that it was safe to return, while it warned government forces not to kill ethnic Kokang civilians. “Starting from this morning [Feb. 25], we are warning you: Our armed force will take action against those persons who killed civilians,” the statement said.
The army established control over Laukkai early last week, but reports of fighting between the army and Kokang and Palaung ethnic rebels in the area and further outlying townships continue to emerge.
Htun Myat Lin, MNDAA general-secretary, said the rebels on Wednesday had attacked the Laukkai residence of Pae Shauk Chan, who heads the township authority.
He said heavy fighting also broke out at Peng Shwe Shen Village, located some 33 kilometer (20 miles) northwest of Laukkai. “They came to attack us. We did not go to attack them, 20 of their soldiers were killed yesterday, but they accused us that we came to attack them,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The Laukkai Township was put under a three-month period of martial law on Feb. 18 and the area is being administered by the Burma Army.
The area is home to an ethnic Chinese minority that numbers around 95,000 people, according to preliminary results of the 2014 Population Census. Heavy fighting between the Burma Army and the MNDAA over control of the area broke out on Feb. 9, causing most of the population to flee north across the border into China.
It remains unclear exactly how many civilians have fled to China and Chinese authorities have released little information about the situation.
Thousands of workers and government staff from central Burma working in the town headed south to central Shan State in recent weeks, where they were welcomed by the Burma Army and local authorities.
There have been recurrent, unconfirmed reports and photos circulated on social media claiming that scores of civilians were killed by the fighting in Laukkai.
Burmese government statements have said dozens of soldiers and rebels were killed, but no information has been released on civilian deaths. Rebels have claimed that between 50 and 100 civilians were killed during the fighting.