Myanmar’s junta chief vowed Friday to strike back after an alliance of ethnic minority groups seized towns and blocked trade routes to China in the biggest coordinated offensive against the military since it seized power in a coup.
Fighting has raged for a week across a wide swathe of northern Shan state, forcing more than 23,000 people from their homes, according to the UN, in what analysts say is the most severe military challenge to the junta since it seized power in 2021.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) said on Thursday they had captured dozens of outposts and four towns and blocked vital trade routes to China.
“The government will launch counter-attacks” against the armed groups, Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech to members of the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself, reported in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
He also accused the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in neighboring Kachin state of attacking “transport facilities” and military bases, and warned the military would retaliate.
On Wednesday, a junta spokesman said the military had lost control of Chinshwehaw town, a major trade hub on the border with China’s Yunnan province.
A resident in Hsenwi, a strategic transport node some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Chinshwehaw, told AFP that locals were cowering in their homes as clashes raged.
“It’s chaos — neither the military nor the alliance groups are in control of the town,” the resident told AFP by phone, requesting anonymity to protect their safety.
“There is fighting every day, with heavy artillery shelling and air strikes as well.”
He said an important bridge was down, effectively cutting the town in two, and people from outlying villages were moving in to seek shelter from clashes in the countryside.
“Thousands of people are stuck in town. We still have food to eat by sharing with each other,” he said, adding that 10 civilians had been killed and 10 wounded.
Communications with the remote region are patchy and access impossible while fighting rages, so AFP was unable to immediately confirm the casualty toll.
“Those who have knowledge of medicine are helping to treat the wounded — people dare not to go to the hospital although we heard it’s open,” the resident said.
Thailand said it had a plan to evacuate 162 of its citizens from Laukkai, a battle-scarred border town some 35 kilometers from Chinshwehaw, which the ethnic armed groups have hinted will be their next objective.
Fighting has been reported since the weekend around Laukkai, a key center in a region rife with drugs, gun-running, prostitution, and online scam centers, and which has been the scene of numerous previous rounds of clashes between the military and armed groups.
Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said the 162 Thais were “safe under the guidance of the Myanmar government” and would be evacuated across the border to China if they wanted to leave the town.
China called on Thursday for an “immediate” ceasefire in Shan state — home to a planned billion-dollar rail link in its Belt and Road infrastructure project.
Myanmar’s borderlands are home to more than a dozen ethnic armed groups, some of which have fought the military for decades over autonomy and control of lucrative resources.
Some have trained and equipped newer “People’s Defence Forces” that have sprung up since the 2021 coup and the military’s bloody crackdown on dissent.
The AA, MNDAA, and TNLA say the military has suffered dozens killed, wounded, and captured since Friday.
The remoteness of the rugged, jungle-clad region — home to pipelines that supply oil and gas to China — and patchy communications make it difficult to verify casualty numbers in the fighting.