/ 31 August 2009

Burma refugees begin warily returning from China

Refugees who fled to China from armed clashes in north-east Burma began going back on Monday, overcoming worries about safety to return to shops and homes they feared would be looted.

By Monday, Burmese troops appeared to have won control of Kokang, a heavily ethnic Chinese enclave controlled by local rulers and their militia, after weeks of fighting that forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to neighbouring China.

The Burma government said on Sunday the situation had returned to normal, adding that 26 government troops or police had been killed and 47 wounded. Eight members of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which has been fighting government troops, were killed, it said.

The conflict was triggered after Burma deployed troops in the area to disarm insurgents.

Burma wants ethnic groups to take part in an election next year, the first in two decades. Activists and observers say the junta sent in its soldiers because it is trying to forcibly recruit rebel fighters for an army-run border patrol force.

The Chinese government has fed and sheltered 13 000 of the 37 000 refugees in Nansan and other towns near the border, according to provincial figures, but it has shown no eagerness to host them for long.

By early afternoon, growing numbers of Kokang residents felt safe enough to begin returning to their homes, with hundreds pressing to get past border checks. Trucks and buses crowded with returning residents unloaded them at the border crossing in Nansan, while others came on foot, carrying blankets.

”Of course I’m scared [to go back], but there’s no choice,” said Liu Shurong, one of the refugees about to return to Kokang.

”If you don’t go back to guard your shop, it will be looted. Many of my neighbours have lost all their belongings.”

Waiting it out
But most of the Kokang refugees appeared determined to wait for a few more days before deciding whether to return there.

”People’s will want to go back some time, but we can’t count out more trouble,” said Huang Yuliang, a businessman from Kokang who said he would wait before deciding whether to go back.

”We invested so much, but now it’s all gone,” he said.

China is one of Burma’s few diplomatic backers and has deflected pressure from Western governments over the military government’s tough steps against pro-democracy campaigners. Keeping large numbers of the refugees, who include fleeing members of the defeated Kokang militia, could rile Burma.

Many of the refugees, hunkered down in blue tents, said they felt torn between a desire to return to family, businesses and homes and fear of ill-treatment by Myanmar government troops.

”Many of us are poor, so we can’t afford to leave home for too long, otherwise we might lose everything,” said Zhou Er, a native of Kokang who had fled to Nansan.

”But if we go back we need to be sure that there won’t be any more fighting or attacks on us. I don’t trust the Myanmar army.”

Forcing back refugees — most of them ethnic Chinese who speak Mandarin — could stoke anger and even protests, said Yao Fu, a Chinese national who said he has run a medical clinic in Kokang for 10 years.

”Many of us are disappointed that the Chinese government didn’t do more to protect us when the fighting broke out,” said Yao, strolling near the border gate in Nansan. ”If they make us go back before our safety is assured, people will be very angry again … We don’t trust the Myanmar army.”

Buffer zone
Kokang has long served as a freewheeling buffer zone between China and Burma and drug trafficking and gambling underpin the enclave’s economy.

At the border crossing, Chinese guards were allowing Burmese citizens to cross back, but barring Chinese citizens unless they held special passes.

Some refugees said they would welcome an end to the militias that have long controlled Kokang. But most said the Burma army would be an alien and untrusted presence in their homeland.

”The Myanmar Army aren’t people; they’re like the Japanese army,” said one Kokang resident, Zhang Hui. In World War II, this part of Asia endured a brutal invasion by Japan.

His loud words drew cheers of agreement from other Kokang residents around him.

”The Myanmar troops steal, trash, loot and shoot,” continued Zhang. ”Kokang was run by [ethnic] Chinese, but now it’s under their control.” – Reuters