Myanmar Villagers Flee Into China to Escape New Fighting

More than 100 villagers fled their homes in Myanmar’s northern Shan state into China as fighting broke out between ethnic Shan rebels and government forces, sources said Wednesday.

A military spokesman said the clash, which wounded one civilian, began Tuesday when government troops seized three truckloads of illegally logged timber, though a spokesman for the separatist RCSS/SSA-S said the army attacked them without provocation.

The RCSS/SSA-S (Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South) is one of seven ethnic armies operating in the state, and though the group has signed a cease-fire agreement with the central government, tensions have recently reignited over movements by both armies into each other’s territory.

Tuesday’s fighting broke out in the Nantsan Gohtung village in northern Shan State’s Muse township, and was likely sparked when government troops attempted to arrest timber traffickers, a district administrator named Okka told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.

“People fled from their homes because of the noise of the fighting, but everything is calm again now,” the official said.

Meanwhile, a local villager was injured when he was struck in the left eye by a stray bullet fired in the fighting as he was returning to his home in Naungkha, a village nearby, another source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

When government troops opened fire, frightened villagers fled across the border to China, another area resident said, describing the firing as “one-sided” and as a provocation by government forces.

“Chinese authorities asked the villagers to return home this morning, though, and they all came back today,” the source said, adding that local Chinese officials had worried that Myanmar soldiers might pursue the villagers across the border.

“We haven’t heard any more noise from fighting this morning,” he added.

Conflicting explanations

Spokesmen from Myanmar’s military and the RCSS/SSA-S offered conflicting explanations on Wednesday of how the fighting started, with a spokesman for the government’s army saying they were fired on as they were confiscating 49 tons of timber they had found loaded onto trucks.

“We transferred the timber to the Forestry Department, but around 25 soldiers from the RCSS/SSA-S turned up at around 5:00 p.m. and opened fire on us with a 40 mm rifle and small arms,” the army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, said.

No government troops were wounded in the clash, but a civilian named Sai San One, age 34, was injured by a stray bullet and was sent to a local hospital for treatment, he said.

“Then, at around 4:00 a.m., five RCSS/SSA-S troops returned and attacked the army again with small arms, and one government soldier was hurt, though his wound is not critical,” he added.

Lt. Col. Sao Oum Khur, a spokesman for the separatist RCSS/SSA-S, meanwhile rejected the government army’s description of the clash, saying that soldiers from his group had left the area after hearing that government forces had discovered the truckloads of illegally harvested timber.

“They knew that people would get hurt if fighting occurred with the government army, and that’s why they avoided it,” the rebel army spokesman said, adding, “As far as we know, the government army started the fighting.”

“This was a provocation by government forces. It was not a fight between the government army and ourselves,” he said.

Clashes in June between the RCSS/SSA-S and Myanmar forces in Kyaukme and Namtu townships had earlier forced about 940 civilians to flee their homes, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Humanitarian groups and local authorities have provided basic emergency assistance to the displaced villagers, the organization said in a regional briefing issued in early July.

Shan state, Myanmar’s largest state and home to the country’s second-largest ethnic group, has been under armed conflict between government forces and numerous ethnic-based armies fighting for autonomy since 1958, 10 years after the former Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Reported by Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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