Myanmar forces launched aerial attacks during a fierce battle with the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups in northern Shan state on Monday, forcing hundreds of villagers in two communities to seek shelter in local Buddhist monasteries, area residents said.
More than 200 people from Hui Khut and Man Htan village have taken refuge in monasteries in Kutkai town following Myanmar military offensives using helicopters in the area near Hui Khut, they said.
The helicopters flew overhead twice by Loi Samsit Mountain and over a golf course at the edge of the town and began firing into the forest near the village during the second flyover, damaging the home of a 60-year-old woman and a village monastery, they added.
“We fled after the aircraft fired their guns,” said farmer Aye Am who lives in Hui Khut village. “I’ve taken all my kids. Everyone in the village is terrified.”
The area near ward No. 8 in the area leading out of Kutkai near the Kabaraye pagoda has been the site of frequent skirmishes between the Myanmar Army and the Northern Alliance, which includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
Only the latter three groups, known as the Brotherhood Alliance, have been involved in recent clashes with government forces in northern Shan state sparked by their coordinated deadly attacks on five locations, including a bridge, a military academy, and police checkpoints in northern Shan state and in neighboring Mandalay region on Aug. 15.
The fighting occurred despite a temporary unilateral ceasefire declared in December 2018 by Myanmar forces in five military command regions, including Shan state, and recently extended until Sept. 21.
Hui Khut village residents told RFA’s Myanmar Service that this is the third time they have fled the fighting.
“We have to flee quite frequently, but this time has been the worst,” said local resident Maung Kyan. “We need to stay away from the village for two or three nights.”
“There was fighting near Kabaraye [pagoda], and we fled the village, but the houses were not hit,” he said. “This time, a house was hit.”
When Myanmar forces and the three ethnic armies clashed near the pagoda at the edge of ward No. 8 on Aug. 26, a monastery building was heavily damaged, sources said.
‘She had left the house’
Abbot Wilartha of Hut Khut village said he did not know of any activities by ethnic armed groups in the area that Myanmar forces attacked by helicopter.
“Nobody lives there,” he said. “There are people in the area around here. If there had been people there, we would have known it. No one was there when the helicopters attacked the area.”
Maung La, a senior citizen who resides in Hui Khut village said the aircraft attack destroyed the home of her neighbor, the 60-year-old woman.
“She survived only because she had left the house,” she said.
“Today the military troops arrived, [and] we showed them the damage they had done to her house. They have contacted their regional office in Kutkai to report the situation.”
The Myanmar soldiers gave the woman 60 sheets of zinc roofing and 100,000 kyats (U.S. $63) to repair her house, the neighbor added.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun confirmed attacks, saying they occurred as soldiers patrolled roads to ensure security, but denied that the gunfire hit any civilian homes.
“There were armed engagements with our troops who were securing the road south of Yingwe Mountain,” he said. “In the evening, armed groups approached Kutkai to attack and disrupt the security of the town. We received intelligence about their plan beforehand. That’s why we were able to stop them.”
“We utilized the helicopters to stop their advances,” he said. “There is no way the shooting from helicopters would have hit civilians’ homes. We only shot at the route the armed groups used.”
TNLA spokesman Major Mai Aik Kyaw was not available for comment.
Residents of Kutkai told RFA on Tuesday that they now fear for their safety amid reports that the three Northern Alliance groups will enter ward No. 4 of the town. Some have seen the soldiers taking positions in the area.
Additional fighting occurred near Nan Khut village close to Kutkai after the Northern Alliance group stopped vehicles on the road leading into town and ordered drivers to park them along the road, though traffic resumed by evening.
More than 2,000 civilians displaced by the hostilities have taken shelter in Kutkai since Aug. 17, though some have returned to their homes assuming the fighting was over, sources said.
The latest clash came as the Northern Alliance and the government peace negotiators failed to reach an agreement to end the fighting in northern Shan State at a meeting in the eastern Shan town of Kengtung on Saturday, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported, citing Brigadier-General Tar Phone Kyaw of the TNLA.
The talks among the parties were the fourth time that they had held negotiations since late February.
While the discussions were underway on Saturday, a clash in Kytkai township’s Mawhitsusi village left five civilians, including three children, dead when mortar shells struck their homes, though it was unclear which side was responsible, The Irrawaddy said in another report. The two others later died after they were taken to Lashio Hospital.
London-based Amnesty International meanwhile called on the Myanmar military and ethnic armies on Tuesday to ensure the protection of civilians and the provision of aid amid the escalation of violence in the region.
The rights group expressed deep concern about mounting reports of civilian causalities, including the killing of the five people on Aug. 31, saying that the deaths likely constitute a war crime, and urged an end to the hostilities.
In all, nearly 8,000 people have been displaced by the latest fighting, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), while civilian and military authorities in Myanmar continue to restrict humanitarian access in northern Shan State.
Reported by Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.