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Myanmar says an ethnic alliance has seized a key city bordering China

This photo provided by Kyaw Ko Lin shows a view of Laukkaing city in Shan state, Myanmar on Nov. 20. Myanmar's military government has acknowledged that it withdrew its forces from the city.
Kyaw Ko Lin via AP
This photo provided by Kyaw Ko Lin shows a view of Laukkaing city in Shan state, Myanmar on Nov. 20. Myanmar's military government has acknowledged that it withdrew its forces from the city.

BANGKOK — Myanmar's military government has acknowledged that it withdrew its forces from a key city on the northeastern border with China after it was taken over by an alliance of ethnic armed groups it has been battling for months.

The fall of Laukkaing late Thursday is the biggest in a series of defeats suffered by Myanmar's military government since the ethnic alliance launched an offensive Oct. 27. It underlines the pressure the government is under as it battles pro-democracy guerrillas in the wake of a 2021 military takeover as well as ethnic minority armed groups across the country.

Ethnic armed organizations have battled for greater autonomy for decades, but Myanmar has been wracked by what amounts to civil war since the army seized power in February 2021 from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking nationwide armed resistance by pro-democracy forces.

The Three Brotherhood Alliance that took Laukkaing is composed of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army. The MNDAA is a military force of the Kokang minority, who are ethnic Chinese.

Photos and videos on social media showed a vast amount of weapons that the alliance claimed to have captured.

Laukkaing is the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone, which is geographically part of northern Shan state in Myanmar.

Myanmar government spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told the Popular News Journal, a pro-army website, on Saturday that the military and its local commanders relinquished control of Laukkaing after considering many aspects, including the safety of the family members of the soldiers stationed there.

He said the military also took into consideration Myanmar's relationship with China, which is just across the border from Laukkaing. China, which has good relations with both the military and the ethnic alliance, has been seeking an end to the fighting.

Beijing protested after artillery shells landed in its territory on Wednesday, wounding five people. Zaw Min Tun said the alliance had fired the shells and that it tried to blame the military in order to damage its relationship with China.

A statement posted by the alliance on social media late Friday declared that the entire Kokang region had become a "Military Council-free area," referring to Myanmar's ruling junta,

It said 2,389 military personnel — including six brigadier generals — and their family members had surrendered by Friday and that all were evacuated to safety.

Video clips circulating on social media purportedly showed the soldiers and their family members being transported in various vehicles. The Shwe Phee Myay News Agency, an online news site reporting from Shan state, reported that many of them were taken to Lashio, the capital of Shan's northern region, under an agreement with the MNDAA for their repatriation.

It's unclear whether the Three Brotherhood Alliance will try to extend its offensive outside of Shan state, but it has vowed to keep fighting against military rule.

The alliance cast its offensive as a struggle against military rule and an effort to rid the region of major organized criminal enterprises. China has publicly sought to eradicate cyberscam operations in Laukkaing that have entrapped tens of thousands of Chinese nationals, who have been repatriated to China in recent weeks.

But the offensive was also widely recognized as an effort by the MNDAA to regain control of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone by ousting a rival Kokang group backed by the military government from its seat of power.

Peng Deren, the MNDAA commander, said in a New Year's speech published by The Kokang, an affiliated online media site, that the alliance had seized over 250 military targets and five border crossings with China. He said more than 300 cyberscam centers were raided and more than 40,000 Chinese involved in the operations were repatriated.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press