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Three Chinese nationals volunteering at a Kokang refugee school were apprehended on Wednesday by Burmese government troops as they were making their way back by foot from the Burmese side of the border to an unofficial refugee camp called Cha He Ba, which is on Chinese territory, some 40 minutes’ drive north of Laogai.
According to sources at the camp, the three Chinese men were stopped and searched by Burmese soldiers, who may have checked photographs on one of the teacher’s phones, and suspected that the men were spies because one of them was previously a member of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and had pictures of his time in the military.
The whereabouts of the detainees is currently unknown.
Cha He Ba originally housed over 700 ethnic Kokang refugees who had fled their homes in northeastern Shan State due to ongoing armed conflict between the Burmese army and a Kokang militia known as the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army. A recent escalation in the fighting nearby has sown fear among the refugees, and many families have left the camp over the past month and sought refuge further inside China. The camp now has a population of around 500.
On Thursday, stray artillery shells landed in the Chinese town of Nansan, injuring five civilians, as Burmese units pounded MNDAA outposts overlooking Laogai [also spelt Laukkai or Laukkaing] in the Nan Tien Men hills along the border.
The conflict in the area known as Kokang Special Region has spilled over onto Chinese soil on other occasions. On 8 March, an errant airstrike by Burmese forces peppered a Yunnanese village with four bombs, killing five local farmers. China responded by scrambling fighter jets along the border, and issued a strongly worded statement expressing “grave concern” to its Burmese counterparts.
Radio Free Asia on Thursday identified the three arrested men as Li Nan, Mu Tengfei and a driver known as Xiao Wang. It reported that the three were detained by Burmese government troops during a security check on the Burmese side of the border on suspicion of spying for the PLA.
According to sources at Cha He Ba camp, the men detained by Burmese troops were volunteering at a makeshift school attended by about 80 children. This is the only existing school for refugee children on the Kokang border, and locals say it runs solely thanks to the efforts of the Chinese volunteer teachers.
The school is a makeshift bamboo shelter with plastic roofing, containing two classrooms: one for Grade 1, and one for Grades 2-3. Children attending classes were aged six to 17. Some had never gone to school before.
The camp, built on a steep hillside, is extremely basic, with refugees surviving on donations of rice and other foodstuff from local communities. The volunteer teachers were camping and living in the same conditions as the refugees.
One of the arrested teachers had earlier taught at another Kokang refugee camp, called Chin Sai Guo, but when it was shelled in mid-April, he moved to teach at Cha He Ba, believing it was safer.