War and peace in the Kokang borderlands

A tense calm prevails in Laukkai as the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone recovers from months of fighting earlier this year.


Tatmadaw solders patrol in Laukkai, February 16. (AFP)

Tatmadaw solders patrol in Laukkai, February 16. (AFP)

In a remote corner of mountainous northern Shan State, the noise of shopping malls, hotels, houses and other buildings under construction has replaced the sound of war in Laukkai, capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone.

Peace had reigned for six years in the zone, covering 3,900 square miles (about 10,000 square kilometres) along the border with China, until it was shattered by fighting in February when the ethnic-Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army attacked Laukkai. The fighting between the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw, which has claimed dozens of lives, displaced tens of thousands of people.

There were chaotic scenes in Laukkai as law and order broke down and houses and businesses were looted. Bustling Laukkai, which was noted for its casinos and massage parlours, became a ghost town.

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About 8,000 Kokang sought refuge across the border in China and thousands of migrant workers from throughout Myanmar fled southeast to Lashio and beyond.

The offensive by MNDAA forces led by the ageing U Phone Kya Shin, whose Chinese name is Peng Jiasheng, was aimed at regaining control of the region.

As the fighting between the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw escalated, the government declared a state of emergency on February 17 and placed the region under martial law for 90 days. Martial law was extended for another 90 days on May 17 and for a third time on August 17. If voting takes place in the region on November 8, it will be under martial law.

Armed conflict has erupted five times in the Kokang region since it became a self-administered zone after U Phone Kya Shin signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government in 1989. The fighting has included clashes between the MNDAA and a rival Kokang group headed by U Yan Moe Lyian, whose Chinese name is Yang Moliang.

In August 2009, fighting occurred between the Tatmadaw and U Pyone Kya Shin’s forces after he resisted pressure to join the Border Guard Force scheme. He fled to China and his former deputy, U Pae Sauk Chien, whose Chinese name is Bai Xuoqian, was appointed by the junta as the region’s leader. The fighting that began in February was the heaviest in the region since 1989 and was the reason for imposing martial law.

The MNDAA declared a unilateral ceasefire on June 10, but clashes continued in some areas.

Although fighting has ended in much of the region, the security situation remained tense when two reporters from the Myanmar-language investigative magazine Mawkun visited Laukkai for a report published in its September edition.

There were police checkpoints at intersections and the entrance to the town and Tatmadaw vehicles patrolled the streets. Tatmadaw snipers had been deployed on top of high-rise buildings. Rumours were rife that the MNDAA would launch another attack on the town.

“Kokang rebels can infiltrate into the town disguised as civilians, so the danger is always there,” said U Kyaw Swe, the general administrator of Laukkai District. “We must be ready for anything.”

Insecure lives

The flimsily-built shelters with walls of woven strips of flattened bamboo and scraps of plastic tarpaulin and roofs of old, rusted sheets of iron stood in stark contrast to the modern brick residences along roads on the Chinese side of the border. Ma Shauk Kaw, 20, from Khohtan village in Laukkai Township, was one of about 200 villagers who were living in the shelters along Nansan Road in the mountains of Lin Chang District, in Yunnan Province.

“We want to go back because we’ve got no money left but we dare not because the Da-Ka-Sa chief (regional supervisor) will not let us return,” said Ma Shauk Kaw, who fled to China when the fighting began in February. She said the Chinese authorities regularly gave each family a bag of rice but that was the only food aid they received. Chinese health teams were providing monthly medical check-ups.

Not all of the Laukkai residents who fled to China were living in temporary shelters and refugee camps. Some went to Nansan, a town about 15 miles (22 kilometres) from the border, where they were living in rented rooms and supporting themselves with any job they could find. Since the fighting eased, most have returned to Laukkai, but the return to the town was marred by the discovery that their homes had been looted and they had to start from scratch to replace their possessions.

A Kokang refugee standing in front of temporary shelter in the border area of China and Myanmar. (AFP)

A Kokang refugee standing in front of temporary shelter in the border area of China and Myanmar. (AFP)

Resettlement program

Government officials in Laukkai were planning to repatriate the Kokang refugees living along the Chinese side of the border. Town elders in Laukkai were making arrangements for the return of the refugees, who were to be resettled in three camps before it was safe for them to return to their homes outside the capital.

“The Chinese authorities are asking that we bring them back and they want to come home, but we cannot let them go to conflict areas,” U Kyaw Swe said. The residents of Manchu village, near Kokang regional command headquarters on the outskirts of Laukkai, would be resettled closer to the town, in 60 houses being built at a cost of K5 million each, he said. “There is nothing left at the village but the bullet holes,” U Kyaw Swe said.

The residents of other destroyed villages near the regional command headquarters were to be moved into Laukkai town, where 140 houses were to be built at a cost of K3.5 million each to resettle them, he said.

U Kyaw Swe said messages had been posted on Chinese social media promising that members of the MNDAA who “returned to the legal fold” without their weapons would face no action under the law.

The Mawkun reporters were told that some migrant workers, including sugarcane cutters, had been abducted by the MNDAA and forced to become mercenaries.

“Sugarcane cutters work in isolated areas, so they were at the mercy of the Kokang troops,” said a Myanmar businessman in Laukkai. “The cane cutters became mercenaries because they feared being killed,” he said. The information was confirmed by U Kyaw Swe.“The sugarcane cutters were abducted by Kokang troops who used threats to force them to become mercenaries and gave them guns and a salary of K120,000 a month, and also provided them with drugs,” he said.

The end of the fighting has encouraged the return of hundreds of migrant workers from throughout Myanmar, who converged on the border town of Chin Shwe Haw because of job opportunities in nearby tea and sugarcane plantations and on construction sites. For security reasons, the migrant workers were being issued with labour registration cards. Of about 2,000 migrant workers in the area, about 500 had been issued with the cards, said U Pyi Phyo Maung, the general administrator of Chin Shwe Haw.

“There are rumours that attacks will be launched on important buildings and certain persons,” said U Pyi Phyo Maung. “Chin Shwe Haw is a border town and criminals may infiltrate it to perform acts of sabotage, so we have to issue the cards as a precautionary measure,” he said.

Education interrupted

The victims of disruption caused by the fighting included school children.

The Laukkai Township education officer’s office, near the Kokang regional command headquarters, was hit by artillery fire, which left holes in the walls and roof. Only 39 of the109 schools throughout the township had been able to reopen because of the security situation, said U Than Win, the Laukkai Township education officer.

Attendance at the two high schools in Laukkai had slumped because of the exodus of migrant workers and their families after the fighting began. The high schools had a total enrolment of about 1500 students, but only half that number were attending classes. In Konegyan Township, only eight of 90 schools had reopened and in Mawhtaik town, where fighting had continued, no schools had reopened.

With the region still under martial law, schools and hospitals can only reopen with the permission of the regional commander.

“It is not 100 percent safe yet,” said U Than Win, adding that he had sought permission from the regional commander to open another five schools.

Economic impact

Both sides of the road running from the border town of Chin Shwe Haw north to Laukkai and then northwest to the smaller border crossing at Yanlon-kyaing, a distance of about 22 miles (36 kilometres), are lined with sugarcane and rubber plantations and paddy fields in different hues of green. Farmers plough the fertile soil with tractors made in China.

Sugarcane, which has been cultivated in place of opium poppies after U Pyone Kya Shin became the region’s leader, generates the most income of any crop in the region.

Figures from the Agriculture Department’s district office show that it has more than 75,000 acres (about 30,350 hectares) of arable land, of which maize is grown on 25,000 acres, followed by sugarcane (20,000 acres), paddy (14,000 acres), other grain crops (7,300 acres), tea (6,900 acres) and rubber (2,600 acres).

The sugarcane is bought by two Chinese state-owned companies under contracts with the Kokang Self-Administered Zone. All of last year’s sugarcane harvest, about 600,000 tonnes, was exported to China at CNY400 (about K80,800 or US$62.6 at current exchange rates) a ton.

The sugarcane harvest begins in January, but was halted in February because of the fighting. It resumed at the end of March and was completed at the mid-June, with production totalling 250,000 tons. About 380,000 tons was exported to China this year, with the balance coming from Konegyan and Mawhtaik, where the harvest was delayed because of the security situation. The Chinese companies were understood to be planning to compensate sugarcane growers, who were to also receive assistance from the Myanmar government in the form of subsidies.

The fighting forced the closure of hotels and guesthouses as well as the suspension of most commercial businesses. Work was also suspended at about 20 construction sites, including high-rise buildings, because of the departure of their migrant labour workforce. More than 8,000 migrant workers had been employed on construction projects in Laukkai. Work was expected to resume on some construction projects as migrant workers began returning to the town.

Among the commercial operations that had reopened were casinos, one of the main businesses in Laukkai. They reopened in June, two months after the imposition of martial law. There are about 10 casinos, employing hundreds of men and women. Because of a labour shortage, casino workers have hit a jackpot.

“Before the fighting, we were paid between CNY2,500 (about K502,000 or $390 at current exchange rates) and CNY3,000 a month,” said a woman croupier in a casino busy with gamblers. “Since the fighting ended, our daily wage has been increased to CNY150, or about CNY4,500 a month,” she said.

Most of the investors in Laukkai are lau-pan (rich men) from China.

The election

There are 50 polling stations in Laukkai Township but it was unclear if voting could take place in the border area of Mawhtaik because of continuing fighting, said U Hnit Sann Oo, a member of the northern Shan State Election Commission.

“It’s three months to the election and the situation could improve in that time,” he said, adding that it might be necessary to arrange a polling station in a safe place for voters at Mawhtaik to cast their ballots.

Of the 32 million eligible voters throughout the nation, the 2014 census showed there were 90,000 in the Kokang region, but only about 40,000 have been listed by the northern Shan State Election Commission.

There are 14 candidates in the region, seven each from the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the Kokang Democratic Party, who are contesting four seats in the Shan State Hluttaw, two in the Pyithu Hluttaw and one in Amyotha Hluttaw.

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