At least 30 people are dead after a day of intense fighting between Myanmar’s security forces and ethnic rebels in the town of Laukkai in northern Shan state, government officials reported Monday evening. The conflict is the worst to hit the Chinese-speaking Kokang region since 2015, stoking fears of escalation and another mass exodus of refugees into neighboring China.
According to government officials, rebels from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) attacked police and military posts in the early hours of Monday, killing five civilians, five police officers and at least 20 rebel combatants. Media reports said that some rebels were dressed in police uniforms for the surprise attack.
“According to initial information, many innocent civilians including a primary school teacher … were killed because of attacks by the MNDAA armed group,” the state counselor’s office said in statement posted on Facebook, according to Agence France-Presse.
The Northern Alliance, a coalition of rebel groups including the MNDAA and the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA), confirmed its participation on Facebook, where it claimed to launch the the attack “to resist an enemy offensive in self-defense.” Clashes with government forces have been escalating in the region since December, so far claiming more than 160 lives.
According to the latest humanitarian update from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 10,500 people have been displaced due to ongoing conflict in Kachin and northern Shan since November 2016.
“Access to displaced people in Non-Government Controlled Areas is severely restricted for international organizations,” the update said.
The attack follows on the heels of a meeting last week where the country’s Nobel laureate de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged a delegation of ethnic armed groups to sign a cease-fire agreement and participate in peace talks. Since coming to power last year, Suu Kyi’s government has been plagued with escalations of decades-old conflicts across the country.
Another estimated 20,000 people remain internally displaced in Rakhine state in the west because of inter-communal and military conflicts with Rohingya Muslims that the U.N. has said constitutes the “likely commission of crimes against humanity.”
“I strongly urge all sides to come to the peace negotiating table by abandoning the armed attacks, which have caused many deaths and problems for the citizens, who are not guilty, and the residents of the area,” Suu Kyi said in a statement late Monday in response to the Kokang attacks, according to Reuters.
Residents of Kokang, which lies on the border with China, are ethnically Han Chinese. They speak a Chinese dialect and use the Chinese yuan as currency.
During the 2015 conflicts, nearly 50 soldiers died, while tens of thousands fled across the border to China’s southern province of Yunnan. But Beijing also bared its teeth after Myanmar’s bombs landed in Chinese territory and killed five people. Myanmar’s military denied any such action, and blamed the rebels for misdirection.
Today, China announced it was taking in Kokang refugees and called for a cease-fire, but that may not be for the long-term. Earlier this year, China turned away thousands of refugees from Kachin state. If conflict continues to escalate and China shuts off its borders, those caught in the crossfire of the world’s longest running civil war will have few places to turn.
“Residents in town are fleeing,” an army officer told AFP. “We do not know exact figures yet.”