Hundreds of displaced civilians from northern Shan State’s war-torn Kokang region have been returned to their hometown of Laogai after taking refuge in the city of Lashio to escape heavy fighting, which the Burmese government says has now ceased.
Sayadaw [head monk] Ashin Awba of the Mansu Buddhist monastery in Lashio, which has provided shelter to refugees, told DVB that 250 people were transported on the 150-kilometre road back to Laogai (also written Laukkai) by government officials on Tuesday.
“At around 8:30 in the morning, government officials arrived at the monastery and explained to the IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] that there is no more fighting in the region, and escorted them back on five trucks,” said Ashin Awba.
“The IDPs arrived here on 9 February. There were around 250 of them – mostly women and children. The majority seemed to be willing to go back as they had left their homes behind and are probably worried for their property.”
Sayadaw Ashin Awba said the IDPs had been provided with food and healthcare under a government-led relief care programme during their stay.
Kyaw Kyaw Htun, deputy-director of the Lashio Relief and Resettlement Department, part of the Ministry for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said the IDPs were being sent back to Laogai as the conflict between the Burmese army and the Kokang rebel group Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army is said to be over.
The returning IDPs will be provided with food and other necessary assistance under a rehabilitation programme, he said.
“We do have a concern about the conflict resurfacing, but have decided to send the IDPs back as the area is now deemed stable,” said Kyaw Kyaw Htun.
“If there is a difficulty, we will have to manage it,” he added.
Meanwhile, some of those returning IDPs, speaking to DVB, expressed concerns for their safety and the property left behind when they fled in February.
“I am happy that we get to go home, but have concerns about safety on the road and the property that we left behind. There may be nothing left by now, meaning we might have to rebuild our livelihoods from scratch,” said one man.
“We just want the officials to ensure we can live our lives in peace and calm.”
One female IDP said, “I do have some concerns about going back, but I’m also happy. If businesses can be invited back into the region and we get our jobs back, then we will have some guarantees in our lives.”
Fighting between government forces and the MNDAA forces led by Peng Jiasheng broke out on 9 February, forcing locals to flee to the town of Lashio and also across the border in China.
Government reports state that the key strategic positions of the MNDAA have been seized, while the rebels have denied these claims.
MNDAA spokesperson Tun Myat Linn told DVB last week that they had suffered no losses of posts, and that he believes his force has inflicted 1,800 Burmese army casualties since the conflict began, despite just 70 casualties among MNDAA troops.