While thousands of civilians poured over the border from Laogai to seek shelter in China this week, several hundred others in the Kokang Special Region – mostly Burmese – have taken refuge in the town of Lashio amid heavy fighting between government forces and Kokang rebels.
Khin Myint Kyi, an official at the government-run high school in Lashio, said an influx of persons has been arriving since Wednesday. She said some 200 people were taking shelter at the high school alone.
“Most of the refugees are from Laogai, Kongyan, Chinshwehaw and Mawhtaik – some came by truck or car and some came on foot. The families of civil servants from the Education Department are also being sheltered at the high school,” she said.
The school officer said the new arrivals had been provided food supplies, water and other essential items by the Red Cross, the government administration and local sympathisers.
A local Lashio woman named Chun Chun told DVB on Thursday that shelters had been erected at four sites across the town, which is located in central Shan State some 200 kilometres from Kokang’s main centre, Laogai, also spelt Laukkai.
“There is a shelter at Yadanarzi monastery and also at the Shan monastery in Mansu where about 300 people are taking refuge,” she said. “About 50 refugees are staying at the Burmese monastery in Mansu but more are coming in on trucks and buses.”
According to those who fled Laogai this week, exchanges of gunfire were taking place in the streets on Monday and Tuesday, and by Wednesday the town was almost completely deserted. There have also been reports of looting. An official curfew was ordered on Thursday evening.
Than Win, a governmental education administrator from Laogai who arrived at the high school shelter in Lashio on Wednesday, told DVB that he was among 150 staff from the department who were forced to leave the town as violence intensified.
“On Tuesday, there was a shootout at the Laogai regional administration office,” he said. “The next morning, things were not looking good. Hundreds of people, including civil servants, road construction workers and sugar cane plantation workers – mostly Burmese – fled the town and headed south by car or motorbike. Those without transportation simply began walking.”
Asked about casualties, Than Win said he had been told that six police officers were shot dead in the Kokang rebel attack on the administration office.
Another refugee at a Lashio shelter is Tin Hlaing, originally from Yamethin in Mandalay Division. He told DVB on Friday that he and 45 other workers from a sugar cane plantation had arrived from Lashio the night before.
“I was one of 46 sugar cane plantation workers – all from the same village – who managed to catch a ride yesterday to Lashio and arrived last night,” he said. “We could not stay any longer in Laogai as the fighting was becoming too dangerous.”
He said that while Burmese civil servants and workers had opted to travel to Lashio, most of the Kokang or Chinese in Laogai had headed across the border to safety.
Meanwhile on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chun-ying said at a press conference that Beijing has not yet released any official figures on how many refugees have arrived on Chinese soil since this most recent Kokang conflict began, saying that “authorities are still counting the exact number”.
She added: “China has provide them with all the necessary assistance. I think they will return to Myanmar as soon as the situation calms down. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can work hard with China to quieten down the situation and return as soon as possible to peace and tranquillity so these border residents can go home.”
Following reports that the Burmese military had deployed airstrikes in order to quell Kokang rebel attacks this week, the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation, an alliance of 20 ethnic political parties, released a statement on Wednesday, urging “both sides to refrain from increasing military operations and the use of airstrikes while the peace process is ongoing.”