NANSAN, China (Reuters) - Refugees who fled to China from armed clashes in northeast Myanmar began going back on Monday, overcoming worries about safety to return to shops and homes they feared would be looted.
By Monday, Myanmar troops appeared to have won control of Kokang, a heavily ethnic Chinese enclave controlled by local rulers and their militia, after weeks of fighting that forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to neighboring Yunnan province in China.
The Myanmar government said on Sunday the situation had returned to normal, adding that 26 government soldiers or police had been killed.
The conflict was triggered after Myanmar deployed troops in the area to disarm insurgents.
Myanmar wants ethnic groups to take part in an election next year, the first in two decades. Activists and observers say the junta sent in its soldiers because it is trying to forcibly recruit rebel fighters for an army-run border patrol force.
The Yunnan province government has said it has sheltered 37,000 refugees in Nansan and other towns near the border, but China has shown no eagerness to host them for long.
“What I can tell you is the border situation is returning to normal,” Chinese Public Security Ministry spokesman Wu Heping told reporters in Beijing, declining further comment.
By afternoon, growing crowds of Kokang residents felt safe enough to begin returning to their homes, with hundreds pressing past border checks shouldering bundles of blankets and clothes.
“Of course I’m scared (to go back), but there’s no choice,” said Liu Shurong, one of the refugees about to return to Kokang.
“If you don’t go back to guard your shop, it will be looted. Many of my neighbors have lost all their belongings.”
By late on Monday afternoon, supervising officials estimated, around a third to a half of the Kokang refugees in Nansan had gone back across the border. Chinese troops continued to shepherd them onto trucks and buses taking them to the border gate.
At the border crossing, Chinese guards were allowing Myanmar citizens to return, but barring Chinese nationals unless they held special passes.
“We can only say that the Myanmar government has told us the situation there (in Kokang) has stabilized,” Li Hui, director of the information office for China’s Yunnan province, told reporters at the border gate. “There should be no trouble for now.”
China is one of Myanmar’s few diplomatic backers and has deflected pressure from the West over the military government’s tough steps against pro-democracy campaigners. Keeping large numbers of the refugees, who include fleeing members of the defeated Kokang militia, could rile Myanmar.
But many refugees spoke of returning with ambivalence.
Hunkered down in blue tents, they said they felt pulled between a desire to return to family, businesses and homes and fear of ill-treatment and misrule by Myanmar government troops.
“People will want to go back some time, but we can’t count out more trouble,” said Huang Yuliang, a businessman from Kokang who said he would wait before deciding whether to go back.
“There’s still much uncertainty about who will run Kokang. The Myanmar army certainly can’t do it on its own ... We can go back, but it won’t be the same. We’ve lost over government.”
Forcing back refugees, most of them ethnic Chinese who speak Mandarin, could stoke anger, said Yao Fu, a Chinese national who said he has run a medical clinic in Kokang for 10 years.
“Many of us are disappointed that the Chinese government didn’t do more to protect us when the fighting broke out,” said Yao, strolling near the border gate in Nansan.
“If they make us go back before our safety is assured, people will be very angry again ... We don’t trust the Myanmar army.”
Kokang has been a freewheeling buffer zone between China and Myanmar, hosting casinos that drew in Chinese tourists.
Some refugees said they would welcome an end to the militias that have long controlled Kokang. But most said the Myanmar army would be an alien and untrusted presence in their homeland.
“The Myanmar Army aren’t people; they’re like the Japanese army,” said one Kokang resident, Zhang Hui. In World War Two, this part of Asia endured a brutal invasion by Japan.
His loud words drew cheers of agreement from other Kokang residents around him near the border gate.
“The Myanmar troops steal, trash, loot and shoot,” continued Zhang. “Kokang was run by (ethnic) Chinese, but now it’s under their control.”
Additional reporting by Royston Chan in Nansan, and Lucy Hornby and Huang Yan in Beijing; Editing by Jerry Norton