By SAW YAN NAING
Hundreds of people living in and around the jade-mining center of Hpakant have fled in recent days amid fears that the area could soon become the latest battleground in an escalating conflict between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Tensions have been mounting in the region, famed for its high-quality jade, since the government started sending troop reinforcements there last week, said Kachin sources.
“More civilians are fleeing Hpakant because they are afraid that the growing government army presence means that there will be fighting there soon,” said La Nan, a spokesperson for the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization.
According to local sources, hundreds of people have already left the area, including businessmen based between Hpakant and Kamai. Many of those who have fled are employees of mines that have been closed due to concerns about the encroaching conflict.
A resident of Lone Kay, a village in Hpakant Township, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that other local companies have also been temporarily shut down.
“Around 200 more government soldiers arrived near Lone Kay yesterday,” he added.
According to La Nan, the government army's Military Operations Command 3 has been sending reinforcements to the region between Hpakant and Kamai since the start of January. Tensions are also mounting between the government troops and Kachin Battalion 6 under KIA Brigade 2, he added.
“If the fighting escalates, the number of refugees will go up into the thousands,” he said.
According to a recent report by the Thailand-based Kachin News Group, around a thousand refugees sheltering in local churches and Buddhist monasteries in the Hpakant area have fled since the beginning of January.