Thousands of people are fleeing a town in Myanmar bordering China after dozens of people were killed in a recent intense fighting between the military and armed ethnic rebel groups.
An unnamed army source said on Tuesday that “about 7,000 local residents are fleeing to the China side because of fighting.”
In a statement released on Tuesday, the military said it used heavy artillery to repel rebels who swept into Laukkai, a major town in the Chinese-speaking Kokang region of Myanmar’s northeastern state of Shan, before dawn on Monday.
The military said rebels from the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) “failed” in their attempt to take Laukkai. It confirmed that civilians and “some army officers” died in a series of clashes around the violence-wracked town.
Media reports earlier said at least 30 people were killed in fresh intense fighting after MNDAA rebels dressed in police uniforms launched a surprise raid against police and military posts early Monday.
According to the leader of another rebel group allied with insurgents in Kokang, communications have been cut around Laukkai but fighting continued on Tuesday morning.
“Almost all residents from Laukkai town are fleeing,” said Brigadier General Nyo Tun Aung from the Arakan Army (AA).
The rebel leader also estimated that thousands had left the region.
The fresh wave of violence has also raised fears of a repeat of 2015 incidents, when the displaced flooded across the border into China, raising tensions with Beijing.
Myanmar’s government troops board a helicopter in the town of Muse, near the border with China, November 25, 2016. (Photo by AFP)
On Tuesday, China called for an immediate ceasefire between the two sides and Beijing urged both sides to halt the fighting.
“Relevant parties should cease fire immediately and restore order to the border areas as soon as possible,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
The area in northeastern Shan has seen repeated bouts of heavy fighting between the army and a band of well-armed ethnic minority militias since November 2016.
Fighting in Shan and the northern state of Kachin along the Myanmar-China border is intensifying day by day.
At least 160 people have died and thousands of others displaced in about three months of clashes across the region.
The clashes have also threatened the second round of peace talks slated for later this month.
Last August, delegates from some rebel groups stormed out of the first round of the peace talks with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi over a spat about their accreditation.
The government’s efforts to expand a ceasefire signed with some ethnic rebel groups in 2015 have faltered.
The rebels, who were said to be wearing police uniforms when they made the surprise raid, suffered the heaviest losses with the military recovering 20 charred bodies it says belonged to fallen insurgents.
Many rebel groups in the border region share close cultural ties with China, speaking Chinese dialects and using the country’s yuan currency.
Observers believe Beijing holds significant sway over the ethnic fighters and has a key role to play in peace talks that Suu Kyi has tried to revive since coming to power in 2015.
The next round of negotiations is slated for March, but the date has slipped several times.
The Northern Alliance, a coalition of armed ethnic groups that includes the MNDAA and AA, has yet to join the peace process or sign a ceasefire that was reached with a myriad of other militias in 2015.