Intensified fighting between the military and the ethnic Kokang forces in Myanmar’s northern Shan state has driven some 1,500 villagers to seek shelter in refugee camps near the border with China, according to residents.
Nang Htu, a resident of Shan state’s Kaung Sa Htee village, near the town of Pangsai in Muse township, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that fighting began in the area on Aug. 3 and has become progressively worse, forcing everyone in the community to flee.
“We’ve been here for four days — the entire village. We couldn’t bring a lot of things. We’ll go back next week to get some of our things like tarps. We need those things for sleeping,” she said.
“Now that the weather is getting cold, we need sweaters and blankets. In the past, we used to grow corn and sell it to China. Now we can’t go to China, and there are so many difficulties.”
The refugees live in three separate areas near the border village of Fiekau. A refugee camp official said as many as 1,530 people from 300 households had fled their homes, most of whom live in tents and briefly return to their village in the afternoon to work before returning to the camp in the evenings.
Lu Mai, a villager from Kaung Sa Htee, said the fighting between junta troops and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army had left the village “totally insecure.”
“There are a lot of people here, and more people means more diseases. This COVID-19 virus is also scary, so we need protection against it. If we live here, our health will be affected somehow. We often get sick,” she said.
“It’s okay to sleep here at night, it is safe. In the village, we couldn’t sleep in peace. We’d often hear gunshots from here and there and so I was scared. Here in the camp, we have some peace and calm. We can sleep peacefully at night.”
Refugees in the camp are mostly ethnic Kachins, Shans, Ta’ang (Palaung), Lisu and Kokang. They are currently receiving a combination of assistance from Kachin aid groups and international organizations.
Sources told RFA that some of those in the camp are in poor health and most do not have access to medical treatment at either clinics or hospitals.
After heavy rains, the creek near the border fence has become flooded, forcing people to relocate. Authorities on the Chinese side of the border have also erected tall fences, and refugees told RFA they are worried that there will be no place to flee in the event of further fighting.
“Sometimes we sell a bag of rice, a few pounds of rice, and buy cooking oil and salt. Now we can’t do that anymore, we’re having a lot of problems. And now they have this wall and Pangsai is far away,” said Khun Phan, a villager in Fiekau.
“People will no longer be able to flee to [China] if fighting breaks out here on this side. And life will become difficult for us as we cannot work without our fields, and we can’t go to the other side for daily work,” she said.
Zaw Di, who runs the camp, explained that problems for refugees have increased along with fighting in the area.
“We are all the time worried because we can’t say when the fighting will return. As the war dragged on, our livelihood became more difficult because we can no longer work,” he said.
“Then there are security concerns. That is why, in my opinion, [getting an adequate amount of] food will be the most important for the refugee camps.”
Myanmar’s military overthrew the democratically elected National League for Democracy government on Feb. 1, claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud.
The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,300 people and arresting 7,700 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in September that more than 120,000 people have been displaced by fighting since May 21 in Kayah and southeastern Shan states, as well as tens of thousands in Chin, Kachin and Karen states, as well as Magway and Sagaing regions.
In late August, OCHA announced that the number of people who need humanitarian aid in Myanmar had increased to nearly two million since the military coup. Those displaced by the recent fighting join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armed organizations, or EAOs, who were already counted as internally displaced persons at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.