Nearly a week after the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) declared its intention to seize control of Laukkai in northern Shan State, the town is showing growing signs of strain.
Residents say that conditions in the administrative centre of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone have deteriorated steadily since the MNDAA announced its plans last Tuesday.
“The power went out almost right away, and now we are also facing a water shortage. People are hoarding drinking water and some shops have stopped selling,” said a local man who spoke to Myanmar Now on Thursday.
The price of basic foodstuffs has also soared, he added, with a single egg now costing as much as 1,600 kyat—or more than US$0.75 at the exchange rate set by the regime. A large sack of rice fetches anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 kyat ($190-380).
The MNDAA and its allies, which have been waging a major offensive against Myanmar’s military and pro-junta militias since late last month, say they now have Laukkai completely surrounded.
“We are slowly moving forward and are near Laukkai now. We have gotten rid of the majority of junta bases, so we are going to enter Laukkai soon,” said Li Kyar Win, the group’s spokesperson.
This has left residents—many of whom attempted to flee in the days leading up to the siege—stranded and increasingly desperate.
Meanwhile, regime forces have also become harder to find in Laukkai ahead of the MNDAA’s anticipated bid to recapture a town that was once its stronghold.
“There are no junta personnel deployed at checkpoints now, and about two-thirds of the militia troops have disappeared to avoid being sent to the frontlines,” said a man with ties to the militias.
“There are only a few soldiers at the entrances and exits of the town. It’s been a while since we saw any uniformed soldiers in town,” he added.
Unlike the militia members, however, the soldiers stationed in the town are still around, even if they’re not as visible as they were before. According to residents, most have now taken up position in tall buildings, preparing for the planned attack.
But it is still far from clear if they are really ready and willing to put up much of a fight. Last week, an entire battalion, including its commander, surrendered en masse to the MNDAA, giving the group control of the roads west and northwest of Laukkai.
Inside the town of roughly 130,000 inhabitants, locals say they can still go about their business more or less as usual during the day, but after 5pm the streets become completely empty.
However tense it gets, it appears that leaving is no longer an option for most. On November 11, many who tried to get out returned after at least six were killed by heavy artillery fire. Since then, the military has not allowed anyone to exit the town.
The MNDAA controlled Laukkai for two decades, until it was forced out of the town in 2009 for refusing to become a Border Guard Force under the military’s command.
The group made a failed attempt to regain control of the town in 2015. It now says it expects to be able to take over the entire Kokang region.