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Laogai fighting intensifies, shells land on Chinese soil

A sign saying "Kokang Self-Administering Region. Welcome to Laogai." (Photo: DVB)

The conflict between Burmese government forces and Kokang rebels intensified in the Laogai area yesterday.

According to a TV report on China’s Nansan News, the road between Nansan (Nansanzhen) and Mengdui (Mengduixiang) in China was closed after artillery shells landed nearby.

“Many shells landed. They were fired across the border and landed about two miles inside Chinese territory,” a local said when interviewed by the TV station.

“Usually, vehicles take just one hour to drive this road,” Nansan local Wan Aik Tin said. “But today, it took me four hours. We had to stop many times because of the shelling. Chinese soldiers have set up security checks every 10 miles along the 40-mile stretch of road.”

He added: “There was also heavy fighting in previous days and a lot of shells landed here. Today [22 March], we heard heavy fighting between 7am and 7pm. I can’t even count how many shells dropped on the Chinese side [of the border].”

Though not specifically alluded to in the broadcast, it is most likely that the artillery shells were fired by Burmese forces taking aim at Kokang positions. The Kokang army, officially known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), generally occupies mountain bases along the Burma-China border, while government troops hold the city of Laogai.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 30,000 local civilians have fled Burma’s restive Kokang autonomous zone since the MNDAA launched assaults earlier this month on Laogai in an attempt to take back control of the city, which is a vital trade hub and strategic military position.

A 6 March attack by the MNDAA targeted police stations and a handful of casinos in the town. It was alleged that the Kokang soldiers abducted 80 female staffers from the casinos, though ethnic allies of the MNDAA counter-claimed that the women were being evacuated to safety.

Significant fighting between the MNDAA and government troops last flared in February 2015. In April and May that year, the Tatmadaw brought in heavy artillery and employed airstrikes to try to dislodge the MNDAA from its mountain bases.

The MNDAA is a member of the so-called Northern Alliance – alongside the Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – which has been excluded from the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between the government and other ethnic militias, and from the peace process in general.