Chinese teacher killed in Myanmar conflict after shelling hits school
Refugees surge into China as fighting across border escalates
A Chinese teacher was killed in northern Myanmar on Saturday when a shell fired by Myanmese government forces hit a school in the administrative capital of the ethnic Kokang region, China Central Television reported.
Guo Shaowei, 46, had been living in the Hong Yan school when it was hit by the shell of Saturday night. Other people were injured and civilian buildings nearby were also damaged.
No Myanmese students were hurt because there were no classes in Saturday, a rebel military source in Myanmar said.
Guo, from Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, had taught in China for about eight years before going to Kokang in 1999. After applying for a job as a teacher there he was posted to the Hong Yan school.
Guo was the second Chinese citizen to die in Myanmar’s renewed tensions, after a man surnamed Yang who died in the artillery bombardment of a border village by Myanmese government troops on Thursday. A source said they were targeting a signal tower in the village held by rebels.
The latest military conflict erupted early on the morning of March 6, when fighters of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) attacked police, military and government sites in Laukkai, the administrative capital of the ethnic Kokang region of Myanmar’s Shan State.
The Myanmese authorities said the MNDAA attacked a hotel in the town near the Chinese border, burned four cars near the hotel and killed five Myanmese police and five civilians. Reuters put the death toll at 30.
An MNDAA video said they launched the attack on a hotel belonging to the governor of the town, who was once an MNDAA leader but now supported the Myanmese army, The Irrawaddy news website reported on March 6.
The clashes are among the worst in the Chinese-speaking Kokang region since fighting two years ago left scores dead and forced tens of thousands to flee across the border into China.
China had settled and offered help to more than 20,000 residents of the border area who had fled Myanmar seeking shelter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing on Wednesday.
A sprawling relief camp in southwestern China, within earshot of mortar fire echoing from beyond a ring of hills, is swelling steadily as a result of the refugee influx.
In a recent visit to the rugged area in southwestern Yunnan province, aid workers and those displaced expressed fears of a more violent and protracted conflict than the 2015 flare-up.
“Every day, more people come,” said Li Yinzhong, an aid manager in the camp, gesturing at the mostly Han Chinese refugees from the Kokang region trudging through the reddish mud around rows of large blue huts where they sleep on nylon tarpaulin sheets. “We will look after them until they decide they want to go back.”
Blue disaster relief tents provided by China also dot the sugar cane, maize and tea terraces flanking the mountainous winding road to the Yunnan town of Nansan.
The violence is a blow to efforts by Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, some of them involved in rebellions spanning decades.
The conflict is also fraying ties between China and Myanmar, which Beijing had hoped could be a key gateway in its One Belt, One Road” strategy to promote economic links between China and Europe.
Kokang has close ties to China. The vast majority of its residents are ethnic Chinese who speak a Chinese dialect and use the yuan as currency.
The Myanmese military said after the March 6 attack it had launched “56 waves of small and large clashes”, using cannons, armoured vehicles and heavy weapons, over the past two months. Rebel forces who lay historic claim to the Kokang region have attacked government troops with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other military hardware.
In an “urgent notice” posted on Sunday on its official website, the MNDAA said the Kokang area was now in a “state of war” as fighting worsened.
On the Chinese side, paramilitary police have sent in battalions of reinforcements, mostly in readiness for disaster relief, according to Chinese officials.
Seven Chinese armoured personnel carriers were seen moving west along the hilly road towards Myanmar and the relief camp sprawled across a muddy wasteland the size of 10 football fields.
The fresh unrest comes after fighting in early 2015 and in 2009 involving the MNDAA, both flare-ups displacing tens of thousands of people.
Ordnance has occasionally strayed into China, with five people in China killed in 2015.
This time round, the door to a village house was blown out, and the upper floor of the Anran hotel in Nansan was shelled, forcing its closure, according to local residents and one official.
“The Chinese will be very angry if it escalates to the level of 2015,” said Sino-Myanmar expert Yun Sun, a senior associate with the Stimson Centre in Washington.
Beijing wanted the Kokang to be included in the comprehensive peace negotiations that Suu Kyi initiated last August, he said.
The military has blocked that, saying the rebels can only join if they lay down their arms.
“The Chinese actually tacitly and privately support the Kokang being included in the negotiations, but they can’t say that,” Yun said.
At around three in the morning on the day of the rebel raids, loud explosions and gunfire woke the Cao family, prompting them to flee at first light with few possessions.
“I was scared,” said Cao Junxiang, who fled in a convoy of four rudimentary, three-wheeled farm lorries tethered to powerful motorcycles, joining a nearly 15-hour snaking exodus of jeeps, trucks, buses, carts and motorcycles bound for China.
“More than half the people (in my village) left,” he said, as others crowded around the open sitting area of a Chinese village house transformed into a makeshift refuge.
Yao Xiaoer, the 49-year old head of the household, said she sent the farm vehicles across the border soon after hearing the first bursts of distant thudding. She eventually got nearly 100 relatives and friends to safety including a two-year-old toddler and a nonagenarian, half-blind, family matriarch, who was dozing on a tatty sofa.
One young mother with a baby strapped to her back said many refugees were seeking out odd jobs to make ends meet.
“We have no money so some of us cut sugar cane,” she said. “We get around one yuan for every 20 sticks we chop, peel and uproot.”
Additional reporting by Mimi Lau