NANSAN, China (Reuters) - Fighting erupted in northeast Myanmar on Saturday after days of clashes in which the leader of ethnic forces said more than 30 government troops had been killed.
The fighting in Kokang in Myanmar’s Shan state, following the deployment of government troops, has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing over the border to the town of Nansan in southwest China’s Yunnan province.
The leader of the Kokang Group which is fighting Myanmar’s army said his forces had captured at least 50 soldiers as well as killing more than 30 on Thursday and Friday, the Chinese Global Times newspaper reported on its website (www.huanqiu.com).
In the telephone interview, Peng Jiasheng, also known as Phone Kyar Shin, gave no details on casualties among his forces, whom he said he was commanding from a safe location in Myanmar.
Reports from Chinese media and Myanmar groups in exile said the fighting began after the Myanmar military, allied with a local splinter group, took control of facilities run by the Kogang Group, also know as Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), in Laogai, in the capital of Shan state.
The MNDAA had observed a ceasefire since 1989.
Myanmar wants ethnic groups to take part in its elections next year, the first in two decades. Activists and observers say the junta deployed troops because it is trying to forcibly recruit rebel fighters for an army-run border patrol force.
They say the aim was to disarm the ethnic insurgents and neutralize their threat ahead of the polls. They say the clashes erupted because of their refusal to agree to the army’s demands.
The Kokang region bordering Yunnan has a population of about 150,000. It is home to a large number of ethnic Chinese, many of whom are Chinese citizens who own shops or trade in Myanmar.
“IT‘S A REAL WAR”
Myanmar citizens housed in refugee camps in Nansan spoke of days of fear and bursts of gunfire and cannon blasts.
“It’s chaos over there now. It’s a real war. They keep saying they’re going to stop but then it starts again,” said Li Jiao, an ethnic Chinese from Myanmar.
Li, in her early 20s, said she had fled to Nansan on Saturday after sounds of gunfire came closer to her village.
China has called on army-ruled Myanmar to maintain stability in the border region and urged further measures to protect the security and legal rights of Chinese citizens there.
In Nansan, the main crossing into Myanmar was closed, and a group of Chinese soldiers kept guard at the checkpoint behind piles of protective sandbags. Some held weapons.
At a ridge in cane-covered hills near Nansan, residents of Kokang continued to trudge across into China on Saturday, many clutching bags of clothes or food.
Chinese police guarding the hill crossing said refugee numbers were down compared with the past few days. But refugees arriving on Saturday afternoon said the latest violence may spur more to cross into China, which has set up camps for them.
“Today we saw guns and heard the cannons,” said Li Deming, a Myanmar national who reached the border after hours of hiking.
“Everyone is worried about where this will end.”
Near the border crossing, dozens of Chinese soldiers armed with semi-automatic rifles stood guard over a group of 50 or so men squatting on the ground in drab military greens. Residents said troops of the Kokang local militia had been fleeing across into China to escape advancing Myanmar government troops.
Beijing is one of Myanmar’s few diplomatic backers, often coming to the rescue when it is subjected to pressure by Western governments over issues such as the imprisonment of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
An NGO worker returning from Lashio, the biggest town in northern Shan state, told Reuters on Saturday “it had become a ghost town.” Other sources said public transport to Kokang region had been halted.
Myanmar state media made no mention of the fighting. The government has made no comment.
Many of the refugees housed in blue tents in Nansan had only a murky idea of the politics behind the warfare.
One who arrived on Friday, Yang Wenhao, said there was talk of conflict brewing even before the gunfire broke out, and he had heard of businesses transferring money to China beforehand.
One person was killed and several people were wounded by a bomb thrown across the Chinese border on Friday, He Yongchun, deputy president of Yunnan branch of the Chinese Red Cross, told the China Daily.
A man surnamed Li from a health center in Nansan said at least one person had been killed and two farmers wounded in the fighting. It was unclear if he was referring to the same incident reported by the China Daily.
“We have received at least 22 injured people sent from Nansan. Most of them are from Myanmar,” a woman working at the surgical department of Zhenkang People’s Hospital told Reuters by phone. Nansan is a town in Zhenkang county.
A new wave of “furious” fighting erupted in the border area at around 8:15 a.m. (0015 GMT), the Global Times website said.
But no firing could be heard from Nansan by mid-afternoon and there were no signs of panic in the town, which normally has about 15,000 residents and a similar size migrant population.
Additional reporting by Huang Yan and Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Editing by Tom Miles, Nick Macfie and Alison Williams