A view of Laukkai town in 2020, when it was a booming casino town. (Fully Light Golden Triangle Media)

Escape from Laukkai: A migrant’s story

A migrant worker from central Myanmar tells Frontier how he fled Laukkai as war closed in on the town bordering China, bringing with it death, destruction and allegations of forced recruitment.


At 4:45am on November 26, U Toe Myint* left the construction site where he had lived and worked for six months. On one shoulder he carried a grimy satchel with two T-shirts, two longyis and two parcels of rice; on the other, a gunny sack stuffed with two blankets. This is all he took with him as he fled Laukkai – a town on the Chinese border that had boomed due to the illicit gambling and scam industries, attracting tens of thousands of migrant workers like him.

The 51-year-old migrant, who grew up in the baking heat of Magway Region in Myanmar’s central plains, was braced for the early-morning chill of the mountain town in northern Shan State. He shivered harder knowing he was violating the 6pm-6am curfew, imposed by the Myanmar military since November 11, but he kept walking.

Life in Laukkai had become unbearable since the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups launched Operation 1027, named after the date it began, October 27. The three allied armies launched coordinated attacks across northern Shan, seizing more than 200 bases from the Myanmar military and disrupting a vital trade corridor to China’s Yunnan province. Laukkai, though, was the prime target. It had been the seat of one Brotherhood member, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, until the Chinese-speaking, ethnic Kokang group was driven out by the military in 2009. The military handed the town over to a Border Guard Force led by MNDAA turncoats, who would rule Laukkai as the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone.

Since that time, the MNDAA has been determined to win back its territory. The group, which relies on covert Chinese support, saw an opportunity to strike when Beijing lost patience with Laukkai’s scam and gambling industries, which target Chinese citizens and depend on trafficked Chinese workers. In addition to retaking lost territory, the stated objectives of Operation 1027 include eradicating the BGF-protected scam and gambling centres, as well as overthrowing the junta in partnership with resistance groups across the country.

When Toe Myint left, the MNDAA was gradually encircling Laukkai and seemed poised to storm the town. The military and BGF troops had set up positions in high-rise buildings, prepared for brutal street fighting. Water and electricity were cut on November 15, and the destruction of bridges and blockage of roads approaching Laukkai sent prices soaring. A 50-kilogramme sack of rice surged from 312 yuan to CNY 2,160 (K92,246 to 638,552), while a litre of petrol went from CNY10 to CNY200 (K2,960 to 59,207), Toe Myint told Frontier in a phone interview where he recounted his escape.

This meant he could afford almost nothing. His salary of CNY1,800 a month abruptly ended on October 30 when his boss ordered a halt to the construction work due to the spiralling costs and insecurity, while allowing the workers to still live onsite. “I didn’t eat rice for more than 20 days because I couldn’t afford to buy it,” he said. “Instead, I boiled millet and added some oil and salt.”

Internet and phone connections also went dead, cutting migrants off from their worried family members. Toe Myint’s workplace, however, had a crossborder fibre connection from China, which he was allowed to use twice a day for an hour even after work was suspended. He used this time not only to contact his relatives in Magway’s Saw Township, but also to help the families of other migrants locate and talk to them. He advertised this assistance in Facebook groups for migrants in Laukkai, while also responding directly to appeals posted by family members in these groups. But despite liaising with almost 30 families, he could only track down eight of their migrant relatives in Laukkai.

By the morning of November 26, he had only CNY20 left in his pocket and knew he had to leave, and was prepared to break the curfew to get out early. However, his fear of being discovered evaporated when, after walking for an hour, he reached the Kyoe Kyar roundabout and joined several thousand people who were also fleeing Laukkai. The throng of pedestrians, cars, motorcycles and three-wheeled taxis joined an even bigger stream of more than 10,000 people at the Kyar Pan roundabout.

There had been a steady outflow of people from the town in the preceding weeks, but Toe Myint said that day saw the largest exodus. Those that remained were mostly the original inhabitants of the area, who before Operation 1027 were vastly outnumbered by migrants from China and elsewhere in Myanmar. These locals looked down curiously from their windows as their former guests fled.

The mass of people leaving Laukkai were headed to Chin Shwe Haw, farther south along the Chinese border, from where they could travel on to Lashio and the rest of Myanmar. But while there was some safety in numbers, they knew better than to take the main road. Just four days previously, people fleeing the town had met with disaster at a military checkpoint on that road, just a few kilometres south of Laukkai.

Laukkai in 2020, when the town thrived on the back of illicit gambling. (Nanda | Frontier)

One of those people was U Htein Lin*, who later described his experience to Frontier by phone. He was driving a car with his girlfriend and four relatives on November 22 when soldiers from Light Infantry Division 55 stopped them at the checkpoint, which is near the Lay Myat Hnar pagoda. From their speech and movements, he could tell the soldiers were drunk.

The soldiers ordered Htein Lin and his friends from the car, along with more than 20 people in other vehicles that had reached the checkpoint. Men and women were separated before everyone was made to squat on the roadside. “We must arrest these people,” Htein Lin heard one of the soldiers say. “We can use them as a shield.”

Accounts are rife of the military using civilians as human shields against resistance attacks, but they were spared from this fate by immediate incoming fire from the MNDAA. Needing to assemble themselves and fight back, the soldiers ordered Htein Lin and the others to walk back to Laukkai, leaving their vehicles behind. He was not allowed to retrieve CNY10,000 in cash or his girlfriend’s iPhone Pro 15 from the car.

As they hurried back to town on a path between fields of sugarcane, a bullet fired haphazardly by one of the soldiers grazed the leg of his girlfriend’s brother. Another group of people trying to escape Laukkai that day were less fortunate. Their light truck turned around before the checkpoint to avoid the fighting, but the vehicle was hit by an artillery shell on their way back to town. The MNDAA said at least 14 of them were killed and blamed the shelling on the military, which in turn blamed the MNDAA.

‘The enemy might be among them’

Mindful of the risks of taking the main road south, Toe Myint and the more than 10,000 other people fleeing Laukkai on November 26 took a rough track past more sugarcane fields to Cheipa, a rural checkpoint controlled by the MNDAA east of the road. Arriving just after 7am, Toe Myint was at first apprehensive when he saw the armed group’s insignia on the fighters’ uniforms, but they greeted the migrants with friendliness, saying, “Go slowly. We won’t do anything to you.”

Still walking, Toe Myint continued southwards with the others through the sugarcane fields, re-joining the main road after less than a kilometre, but with the dreaded military checkpoint near the Lay Myat Hnar pagoda now behind them. All about them were discarded bags, clothes and other possessions that had become too heavy for people to carry, as well as the wrecks of cars and motorcycles hit by artillery.

At about 9am, they arrived at a checkpoint at the entrance of Par Hsin Kyaw village that was also manned by the MNDAA. Through a Burmese language interpreter, the Kokang soldiers ordered the new arrivals to discard their phones in a pile. Toe Myint tossed a phone that he had earlier found on the roadside, keeping his real device in his satchel.

In a voice message, MNDAA spokesperson U Li Kyar Win told Frontier that confiscating phones was an essential security measure because there may have been military spies among the displaced people. “The enemy might be among them, so we have to do an inspection to find out if they’re real civilians,” he said.

After this measure was taken, people with vehicles drove on to Chin Shwe Haw, while Toe Myint and about 3,000 other pedestrians waited for 12-wheeler trucks arranged by the MNDAA. They grew anxious at the sound of artillery firing somewhere nearby, and when the first two trucks arrived after half an hour, there was a frantic rush to get inside. Nine more 12-wheelers arrived at around 11am and they departed in a convoy an hour later, with several hundred people crammed into each one.

Toe Myint was saddened to glimpse many houses destroyed by shelling as his truck passed through Par Hsin Kyaw village, but he began to feel safe at the sight of MNDAA soldiers lining the road. Like many in Myanmar, who saw the MNDAA as foreign invaders, he had sided with the military when it ousted the MNDAA from Laukkai in 2009, and when it repelled the group’s attempt to retake it in 2015. “But now those views have changed,” he told Frontier.

The 35km journey to Chin Shwe Haw normally takes an hour and a half, but because the road was clogged with hundreds of cars and bikes going in the same direction, the trucks didn’t arrive until 5pm. MNDAA officials recorded the 306 people that clambered wearily from Toe Myint’s truck and handed them parcels of rice and water bottles, before taking them to the eighth floor of a building where they would spend the night.

At 10am the next day, Toe Myint and the others were taken less than 20km to the small settlement of Namtit, where the MNDAA handed them over to the United Wa State Army – an ethnic armed group that has helped arm members of the Brotherhood, but which has stayed out of the recent fighting. Toe Myint said the UWSA warmly welcomed them, offering rice and water. Although now safe, he could hear artillery 50km away in Laukkai and worried for the people who remained in the town.

Laukkai’s Baopang Street, also known as “Bamar Town”, in 2020. (Nanda | Frontier)

Less than two hours later, the UWSA sent them on another fleet of 12-wheel trucks to Tangyan, a relatively stable town from where they could make their own way back to central Myanmar. The trucks took a very roundabout route from Namtit, tracing the Chinese border southwards to Panghsang, the UWSA’s headquarters, before heading west. A collision with a private car delayed the journey by a further seven hours, and they didn’t arrive in Tangyan until 4pm the next day, November 28.

From there, Toe Myint and about 30 other people chartered a light truck across northern Shan to the city of Mandalay. He was only able to pay his fare of K30,000 because a nephew he’d encountered back in Chin Shwe Haw had lent him money. He is now back on his family farm in Magway Region, from where he spoke to Frontier. Although out of money and unsure of what to do next, he is thankful to be alive.

‘Everyone longs for home’

The United Nations said on December 15 that 82,000 people had been displaced in northern Shan since Operation 1027 began. However, MNDDA spokesperson Li Kyar Win told Frontier that the group had relocated more than 100,000 people to safer areas. Some couldn’t be saved – the UN cited unverified reports that 130 had been killed and 210 injured – and despite a temporary ceasefire brokered by China earlier this month, fighting between the military and MNDAA continues.

But while Toe Myint risked getting shelled or caught in the crossfire in Laukkai, his status as a Bamar migrant protected him from an additional danger: forced recruitment into the MNDAA. Frontier spoke to the family members of five people displaced from Laukkai who had been conscripted into the armed group, and they said it was targeting people from ethnic groups local to Shan, including the Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang.

Ja Seng*, a Kachin woman living in Lashio, said the group detained two of her brothers aged 17 and 19 when they reached Chin Shwe Haw, keeping the 17-year-old. “The MNDAA conscripted my younger brother. The other one was released because he had undergone surgery on his leg,” she said, suggesting the older brother was therefore unfit to fight.

On December 21, Human Rights Watch accused the MNDAA of “violating the laws of war by abducting and forcibly recruiting civilians, putting them at grave risk”. The New York-based advocacy group added that the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Myanmar ratified in 2019, obligates non-state armed forces not to, “under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18”.

However, the MNDAA is unapologetic about this practice. “In our Special Region 1, we have a law that requires military service for everyone that turns 16,” spokesperson Li Kyar Win told Frontier. “We have to follow this law.”

Special Region 1 refers to the territory the MNDAA claims in northern Shan, which includes Laukkai and Chin Shwe Haw. The region was granted to the group as part of its ceasefire agreement in 1989, when it emerged as a splinter faction of the Communist Party of Burma, before the military broke the truce in 2009 and ousted it from the area.

Besides those known to have been forcibly recruited, many other people who tried to flee Laukkai have not been heard from since. The Facebook groups that Toe Myint had used to connect migrants with their relatives remain full of appeals from families for information about missing loved ones.

Ma Toe Toe Zaw*, who lives in Pyay Township in Bago Region, told Frontier on November 30 that she had been unable to contact her older brother, a migrant worker in Laukkai, for two weeks.

“No matter who they are, everyone longs for home,” she said. “People of all types had to go to places like Laukkai to earn a living, but danger was all around them. I pray to Lord Buddha that my brother is safe.”

*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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