Normally, the Kokang region of northern Burma, home to ethnic Kokang, doesn't exactly hum with activity. Small traders sell apples from China out of carts on the side of the road; the area's capital, Laogai, is a seedy town with open-air markets and several shabby casinos catering to local tourists. But last August, the region suddenly came alive. The Burmese military launched a wave of attacks against a Kokang insurgent group, and the Kokang fought back, joined by other ethnic armies in the region. Terrified, as many as 30,000 people fled the lawless area, with many crossing the border into China. And Beijing clearly wasn't happy. "We warned [the Burmese government] not to push the Kokang too hard," says one Chinese official. "They just didn't listen to us."
The fighting in Kokang country was hardly unique. Across northern and eastern Burma, where the military junta exercises minimal control and insurgents run wild, tenuous ceasefires between the regime and ethnic-minority militias are breaking down. The resulting clashes are aggravating the nation's already grave humanitarian crisis, spawned by a mix of vicious army repression of civilians and constant fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents. The Thailand-based Burma Border Coalition estimates that there are already more than 450,000 internally displaced people in one eastern region of Burma alone, and many of them are literally starving to death. Overall, more than a million Burmese have been uprooted—one of the largest groups of internally displaced people in the world. Many refugees spend their time constantly on the run, fleeing one army offensive after the next and struggling to keep their children alive as they forage through the jungle, searching for edible plants. With virtually no medical care in much of the country, children and even healthy adults die of diseases easily curable just across the border in Thailand, while rampant prostitution and widespread rape by soldiers spread virulent strains of HIV among the refugees. And if fighting picks up again, hundreds of thousands more will likely be forced into itinerant misery.