The Myanmar military on Thursday airlifted 28 foreigners from war-ravaged northern Shan state, while community-based organizations evacuated more than 160 villagers and migrant workers trapped in a conflict zone where ethnic armed groups have staged recent attacks and clashed with government troops, a military official and humanitarian worker said.
The evacuations took place as China, which shares a border with Shan state and has influence with some of the ethnic armies, called on an alliance of the ethnic forces to halt the fighting it said was threatening regional stability.
Among the foreign nationals transported from Kutkai township to Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon were nine U.S. citizens, one Canadian citizen, two Hong Kong nationals, two Chinese, and two Taiwanese, sources told the media.
The foreigners, who work for the international Christian NGO Go and Love Foundation, were working on education projects in Shan state when they were trapped in the region on Aug. 15, the day that an alliance of three ethnic armies launched coordinated attacks in Shan state and neighboring Mandalay region.
“They asked the government, their related embassies, and other ministries for help, and that’s why the military evacuated them,” military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We are sending them from Kutkai to Lashio by military helicopter, and then from Lashio to Yangon by military plane,” he said.
The Aug. 15 attacks carried out by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) on various sites, including a bridge, a military academy, and police checkpoints, left 15 dead and caused nearly U.S. $200,000 in damage.
The three ethnic armies are fighting Myanmar forces for greater autonomy, territory, and resources in their respective regions of the country.
Two days after the attacks, fighting picked up near Khonesar village in Shan state’s Lashio township, trapping residents in the conflict zone.
Villagers and volunteers helping them said they have heard sporadic gunfire in the area since Wednesday night.
Humanitarian groups from Kutkai, Hsipaw, and Lashio evacuated the residents along with 10 road construction workers — migrant workers from other parts of Myanmar.
“Last night, their [the workers'] vehicle was hit by a blast from heavy shelling,” said Ko Myo from Philanthropists Without Borders Association, a humanitarian group based in Lashio. “They got scared and didn’t want to stay there. They decided to come with us back to Lashio.”
“We were then asked to help some locals from Khonesar village last night,” he said. “Our three groups from Lashio, Hsipaw, and Kutkai together evacuated more than 160 villagers.”
China voices concern
In a related development, China on Tuesday asked an alliance of ethnic armies battling the Myanmar military to stop fighting in war-torn northeastern Shan state, which borders its territory.
The uptick in hostilities has further threatened to destabilize the border region.
During a meeting in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, Sun Guoxiang, special envoy for Asian affairs from China’s foreign ministry, summoned the leaders of ethnic armed groups that comprise the Northern Alliance and told them that Beijing does not accept the armed conflict, according to the online journal The Irrawaddy, citing Colonel Tar Bhone Kyaw from the TNLA.
The Northern Alliance includes the TNLA, AA, MNDAA, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the last of which did not participate in the Aug. 15 attacks in Northern shan state and Mandalay region.
Sun addressed the leaders of the groups, who are also members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) — a coalition comprising seven ethnic armies and their respective political wings that participates in political negotiations with government representatives and discusses peace-building.
The FPNCC told the Chinese envoy that the Myanmar military must cease operations in Rakhine state and in the ethnic Kokang and Palaung (Ta’ang) regions.
Other specifics concerning the meeting have not yet emerged.
“I think the meeting is about the peace negotiations and the recent clashes between the Northern Alliance members and the Tatmadaw [Maynmar military], said Colonel Naw Bu told, spokesman of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is a member of the FPNCC.
“The leaders who attended the meeting have not come back yet,” he said. “They haven’t informed me of anything, so I don’t have any information to tell you.”
RFA could not reach Tar Bhone Kyaw, who serves as FPNCC spokesman, for comment.
Myanmar political analyst Than Soe Naing said China’s concern about an uptick in fighting and attacks in Myanmar’s border regions stems from its plans for infrastructure build-outs in the Southeast Asian country under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“China will object to anything that could affect the development of its BRI projects in Myanmar,” he said. “But they don’t seem to take into account the [Myanmar] military’s operations being carried out in the region.”
“China is putting pressure on the ethnic groups one-sidedly since it only demanded that they stop fighting instead of encouraging them to resolve the problems through negotiations,” he said.
On Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon issued a statement denouncing the ethnic armies’ coordinated attacks four days earlier on various locations, but said the country supported the stability of the China-Myanmar border region and would continue to contribute to Myanmar’s peace process in a positive way.
China’s ambassador to Myanmar on Thursday met with Kyaw Tin, Myanmar's minister for international cooperation, to discuss bilateral relations, the BRI project, the implementation of a China-Myanmar economic corridor and border trade zone, and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
Reported by Aung Theinkha, Thet Su Aung, and Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.