Three weeks after launching a broad offensive in the northeast of the country, rebel forces in Myanmar are closing in on Laukkai, a town controlled by a pro-junta militia near the Chinese border.
The capture of the town, the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ) in northern Shan State, appears to be one of the major objectives of Operation 1027, which the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched late last month.
The offensive has so far made rapid progress. The Alliance claims to have overrun more than 150 junta outposts, cut important highways to China, and captured towns and strategic highway junctions. These forces, spearheaded by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), one of the three members of the Alliance, are now poised to capture Laukkai.
Late yesterday, BBC correspondent Jonathan Head reported on X (formerly Twitter) that fighting was now taking place within the town limits. He said that Laukkai, which sits a few kilometers from the Chinese border, is “now completely cut off” from China.
A day prior, the MNDAA said in a statement that its fighters were preparing for the town’s capture. “We have surrounded Laukkai and soon will retake it,” the MNDAA said in the statement, which was quoted by the AFP news agency. The group did not say when it would do so, claiming that it wanted to ensure the safety of those civilians who were unable to flee.
Under its current junta-friendly leadership, Laukkai has become notorious as a hub for casinos, online gambling operations, and scam businesses controlled by prominent Chinese crime families. Hundreds of foreigners are believed to be held in the town, in industrial-scale online scam compounds.
In preparation for its final assault on the town, the MNDAA on Tuesday issued a five-point order to its forces on measures to reduce civilian causalities. According to a translation by Jason Tower of the U.S. Institute for Peace, the MNDAA has been ordered to “protect foreign nationals and rescue kidnapping victims,” and “turn Chinese criminals over to the Chinese police and take swift enforcement action against those protecting criminals”; It has also been ordered to “protect Chinese businesses and the China-Myanmar pipeline project.”
The closure of the Laukkai scam centers, one of the publicly declared goals of Operation 1027, is a likely bid to ensure tacit support from the Chinese government, which has grown frustrated recently at the Kokang SAZ’s unwillingness to shutter the major online fraud operations in their territory. These operations have involved both the trafficking and defrauding of thousands of Chinese nationals.
Applying pressure from their own side, Chinese authorities have released a string of arrest warrants for key Kokang leaders as the offensive has unfolded. Earlier this week, I wrote about the issuing of arrest warrants for four members of the Ming family, a prominent criminal clan in Kokang. This was followed by a warrant for Bai Yingcang, the son of Bai Suocheng, the co-founder of the Kokang Border Guard Force, which governs the SAZ.
The fall of Laukkai would be a major success for the Alliance, particularly for the MNDAA. The group controlled Kokang prior to 2009, when a splinter group broke away and joined the Myanmar military in expelling it from the area. While the Three Brotherhood Alliance has framed its Operation 1027 offensive in terms of “eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship,” for the MNDAA it also represents something like unfinished business, following a failed attempt to recapture Kokang in 2015.
For the military junta in Naypyidaw, the return of Kokang to MNDAA control would herald perhaps the end of its presence in northern Shan State, and the end of a significant stream of income. While it would not guarantee the junta’s downfall, it would bring the day of victory for Myanmar’s resistance forces that little bit closer.