The conflict between government forces and Kokang rebels has intensified north of Laogai this week with both sides claiming the advantage.
The Burmese military on Wednesday claimed it had captured three hilltop outposts of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), west of Mar Lu Shwe, some 40 to 50 kilometres north of Laogai [also spelt Laukkai or Laukkaing], the largest Kokang town in northeastern Shan State.
However, the MNDAA has denied that it lost any bases and called the Burmese military report “untrue”. In fact, it said, the Burmese army lost at least 30 men in an unsuccessful effort on Monday and Tuesday to overrun the Kokang’s Nan Tien Men positions, just a few miles north of Laogai.
A skirmish between MNDAA and government units was reported to have occurred in Konkyan [20 km north of Laogai] in the past few days. Clashes have also been reported between the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and government forces in and around the towns of Hsenwi [also known as Theinni, 40 km northeast of Lashio], and Kyaukme [60 km southwest of Lashio]. DVB is unable to confirm the varying accounts of the hostilities.
On Wednesday, military-owned Myawady newspaper reported that Burmese government forces had captured three Kokang rebel outposts near Mar Lu Shwe – Points 1607, 1709 and 1742. The report said that a successful assault on Monday saw Point 1607 fall into Burmese military hands, followed by the taking of Point 1709 later that evening, and Point 1742 the following day.
The military mouthpiece claimed that the bodies of seven rebel fighters had been recovered in the operations, which also yielded the capture of three RPGs, six M-22 rifles and other ammunition. It said that government forces had suffered “some” casualties.
But MNDAA leaders disputed the Burmese military’s claims, saying it had not lost the said bases. It acknowledged that it had lost one soldier with four injured.
In a separate incident, the Kokang claim, in a range of hills known as Nan Tien Men, some four or five miles north of Laogai, their rebel units had repelled a Burmese assault, which included attacks by helicopter gunships, and inflicted losses upon the attacking troops.
A key commander of the MNDAA told DVB on Tuesday that at least ten Burmese soldiers were killed in two days of fighting after government forces launched a series of assaults at Nan Tien Men on Monday and Tuesday. The following day, the MNDAA updated that figure to 30.
Yang Guang Hua, an MNDAA brigade commander defending Kokang positions on the hilltops, said, “The Tatmadaw [Burmese government forces] employed heavy artillery, mortars and rockets all at the same time.”
The shelling, up to 50 rounds per minute, started at 5:50a.m. local time on Monday and continued until 11:30am, he said. Burmese infantry with tanks and armoured vehicles later launched two more attacks at the MNDAA front lines, but were both repulsed, according to Yang.
“Both sides suffered a number of casualties,” he said, noting that at least ten Burmese soldiers died in the attack on Monday morning. He did not confirm how many Kokang were killed or wounded.
On both Monday and Tuesday, between two and four Burmese military helicopter gunships bombed the Kokang’s Nan Tian Men positions with a barrage of rockets, Yang said. “We hit one of the helicopters with machine gun fire, and it is now debilitated. But we’re not sure whether it crashed,” he said. DVB could not independently confirm the MNDAA commander’s claim.
Also speaking to DVB on Tuesday, MNDAA spokesman Tun Myat Linn said, “We are seeing heavy fighting around the Nan Tien Men hills. Helicopters attacked us, firing machine guns and dropping bombs on our positions. We estimate that around 100 bombs were dropped, while their infantry had fire support from tanks and armoured vehicles.”
He said that around 500 Kokang soldiers are defending the three hilltop positions, with an unknown number of government troops attacking from below.
The Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which has been fighting alongside the MNDAA since violence broke out in the region in February, also reported clashes. TNLA sources claimed 20 Burmese soldiers were killed, with at least 17 injured, in clashes between TNLA and Tatmadaw units on Sunday near the villages of Natee and Myaukze in Hsenwi Township.
The TNLA said it carried out a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a Burmese army convoy on the road to the town of Kunlon on Monday, destroying four vehicles and injuring Burmese soldiers.
The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) this week reported continued violence against civilians in the region.
Three elderly villagers were killed in February, said SHRF: One was shot dead in his home by government soldiers; one was burned alive in his home; and one was killed when a Burmese army shell hit his home.
In mid-March, according to the foundation, after four refugees returned to their village of Xi Mi Cun, two of their bodies were found – one decapitated – while the other two have disappeared. In April, another four refugees returned to their homes near to Son Shan village, where they were shot at, with three of them now missing, the report said.
The chief of the government’s Union Peace-Making Work Committee, Minister Aung Min, said at a meeting with ethnic armed groups on 10 May that the recent hostilities in the Kokang region were provoked by the MNDAA, and that the conflict will cease only when the rebels stand down.
MNDAA commander Yang rejected the minister’s statement.
“We don’t want to go to war; what we want is equal treatment like other nationalities,” he said. “The Kokang people live in just a small corner of Myanmar and if we want to go outside, to Yangon, to other Myanmar cities, we have to go through countless processes. In most cases, we cannot travel at all. Why can’t the Tatmadaw treat us like other Burmese?
“The only explanation would seem to be that the Burmese military want our land, but they don’t want the Kokang people [who live on it],” said Yang. “As long as the Burmese government continues being irresponsible, we must resist.
“It’s a matter of life and death of our people,” he said. “That’s why we have to keep fighting until the last bullet.”