Residents flee China-Myanmar border town amid fears of imminent fighting between military and Kokang army

Thousands of locals have been leaving the town of Laukkai in northern Shan State since Tuesday, fearing that battles will reignite between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Rumours of an MNDAA attack on the Myanmar army in Laukkai—located on the border with China, more than 100 miles northeast of Lashio, northern Shan State’s largest town—have circulated on TikTok and WeChat for around a week.

“There were people leaving the town the whole day yesterday. Vehicles are lining up to leave today, too,” a resident of Laukkai told Myanmar Now on Wednesday.

He added that there had been a junta checkpoint set up near the town’s entrance and exit to search vehicles and that traffic was at a standstill.

While shops have been open as usual during business hours, a curfew has been put in place by the military, with residents barred from leaving their homes at night.

According to locals, most of those leaving are domestic migrants from elsewhere in northern Shan State as well as central Myanmar, who relocated to the border town seeking employment as daily labourers, masons, ironworkers, and shop vendors.

The exodus has caused a rise in the bus fare to Lashio, which is usually priced at 30,000 to 40,000 kyat (US$14 to $19), but had spiked to around 100,000 kyat ($48) on Tuesday due to increased demand, a driver said.

By Wednesday, it had dropped to 60,000 kyat ($29), with people still steadily departing.

A member of the MNDAA’s information team said the recent rumours started after a coalition of junta troops and members of military-allied militias launched a three-day attack on one of the ethnic armed organisation’s bases near the town of Chin Shwe Haw, 20 miles south of Laukkai town, on November 27.

“I can say that these are just rumours,” the MNDAA information officer said. “[The military] has said that Laukkai is in a state of emergency, but that was because they initiated the attack on our base.”

The post has been under the MNDAA since 2015, he explained, but noted that tension had been building due to its proximity to the town of Laukkai.

Any decision regarding an attack on the junta’s forces in Laukkai would be made by the MNDAA’s leadership, the information officer added.

In a recent video circulating on social media, Pe Sauk Chain, the military-appointed leader of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone—which includes Laukkai—dismissed the suggestion that fighting would soon break out in the town. He urged residents not to flee, insisting that they would be “protected.”

The MNDAA lost control of Laukkai in 2009 during a Myanmar military offensive categorised as an anti-narcotics campaign. MNDAA founder Peng Jiasheng tried to regain control of the Kokang region, including Laukkai, using a large armed force in 2015, but was unable to lay claim to the whole territory.

Since the February 2021 military coup, heavy fighting has repeatedly broken out between the MNDAA and the junta’s forces along the China-Myanmar border, with military tension remaining high in the region.

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