Back From Mong Ko

By Nang Seng Nom 5 January 2017

In the third week of November, I went to Mong Ko in northern Shan State amid fierce clashes between the Northern Alliance and Burma Army.

The Northern Alliance is comprised of four ethnic armed groups—the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army. The coalition launched joint offensives in several townships including in Muse’s border trade zone and in Mong Ko in northern Shan State on Nov. 20.

Among them, Mong Ko was hit hardest by clashes, suffering the most severe damage and the highest numbers of casualties.

The town lies at the Burma-China border and is accessible via Kyukok (Pangsai). But because of continuous clashes, no media outlets could get into the area to report on the conflict from the ground or to document the plight of the town’s residents.

In other words, Mong Ko was subjected to news blackout amid the clashes. I went with a reporter from the Kumudra Journal; it was a challenge to go and report on the situation there.

As the road to Mong Ko via Kyukok (Pangsai) was blocked by clashes, we had to get there by traveling through China, and we encountered many checkpoints along the route.

As I was told by Mong Ko locals not to bring cameras or laptops through China, I only took a backpack, two cell phones and a border pass. Because of this, we were able to pass the inspection gates on the Chinese side with ease.

At the entrance gate of Chinese border town of Man Hai, located just across from Mong Ko, an ethnic Shan Chinese policeman, after checking my border pass, told me in the Shan language: “Clashes are taking place at the opposite bank [in Mong Ko]. Who are you going to visit? You’d better take care.”

In Man Hai, we met assistant pastor Gam Seng of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) who arranged for us to cross the border into Mong Ko.

I was both excited and nervous about going into the town. I had heard before I went there that Mong Ko had experienced fierce fighting—houses were reduced to ashes and a Catholic church and a school were badly damaged by artillery fire.

Before the trip, my colleagues had also warned me to take extra caution when entering houses hit by artillery, since there might be unexploded shells inside.

Heading to Mong Ko, my heart was pounding. As soon as we entered the town, I felt there was a heavy silence lingering in the air, which was filled with smoke from burnt houses and other things.

Fearless assistant pastor Gam Seng accompanied us as we conducted interviews and took photos throughout the town from our motorbike.

We ran into U Ye Htun, head of the engineering department in Muse district municipality and U Ngwe Htay, the administrator of Mong Ko Township, while we were taking pictures.

“You are free to report what you see. If you need any help, let me know,” U Ye Htun told me. The two also gave us their phone numbers.

As a reporter, I was particularly curious about the Catholic church and the high school that had been damaged by artillery fire. As we arrived at the church, a soldier on duty there asked me what we as journalists refer to as the “five Ws,” including where I came from and what I was doing there. I answered that I was a reporter. He told me not to take photos, citing “security reasons.”

However, I phoned the township administrator and managed to get into the church and the high school to see the damage.

The two buildings had suffered worse damage than I had expected. Although I did not see much damage to the main structure of the church, as the government troops were repairing it, the wall of the church was riddled with bullet holes.

Some troops were also stationed in the school, but the bullet holes bore witness to the recent past, which saw horrible clashes.

I also saw houses burnt or hit by artillery fire, and in some places smoke was still in the air.

“How are we supposed to survive after our houses and grain have been burnt?” asked a woman from Mong Ko’s Ward 2 who did not want to be named.

Gam Seng told us that most of the houses that had been torched were located close to strategic hill posts belonging to government troops.

“You have to get back to China by 5:00. We have no electricity in Mong Ko now and it is not convenient for guests to sleep in the town,” he said, before sending us back to the Chinese border gate.

As we got back to our guesthouse in Man Hai, I checked the photos and videos I had shot. Suddenly, my phone rang.

It was a clerk from Mong Ko Township’s General Administration Department. He asked me where I was and if and when I would go to Mong Ko the next day.

Around an hour later, Mong Ko Township administrator U Ngwe Htay also called me. As a reporter, I was suspicious of his call, but I still took it.

“Where are you now? Have you gone back to Muse? Who did you meet with? What have you asked them? Will you come again tomorrow?” He bombarded me with questions.

After poring over the decision for hours, I decided not to go to Mong Ko the next day. I returned to Rangoon via the Wan Tein Road in Kyukok (Pangsai). On my return, I went through three inspection gates set up by the Chinese police.

On our way back, the Mong Ko township administrator called me again. “Aren’t you coming back to Mong Ko? Where are you now? Please, don’t publish the pictures of the church,” he said.

He called me several times, requesting the same thing—not to publish the pictures of the church.

I and other reporters made a safe return from Mong Ko, but Gam Seng and his uncle Dumdaw Nawng Lat, also an assistant pastor who assisted with our trip, went missing on the evening of Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

“I wish reporters had been in Mong Ko when locals fled to China after planes dropped bombs during the clash,” Gam Seng had told me.

(Editor’s Note: Northern Alliance troops retreated from Mong Ko on Dec. 4, following air strikes by the Burmese military. Earlier this week, two bodies were found in a septic tank in the town and the KBC believes that these were the bodies of two assistant pastors. They reported it to the police, and it is still under investigation.)

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.