Ruili, China’s gateway to Myanmar, hit by dual hardships of coronavirus and conflict across border

·4-min read

People living near the Chinese border with Myanmar are suffering from the dual hardships of coronavirus and armed conflict nearby, causing prolonged pandemic control measures and evacuations.

A government source in the city of Ruili, China’s major gateway to Myanmar in Yunnan province, said an evacuation was planned for 2,000 residents in Wanding town after one person was injured and houses were damaged in mid-October by stray bullets from over the border.

Wanding town is just 50 metres (164 feet) from Pang Hseng town in northern Myanmar’s Shan state, where junta troops and ethnic Shan armed groups have engaged in sporadic fighting since August.

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“We have stacked sandbags around schools and some places where there are more residents walking,” said the official, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

He also confirmed the authenticity of a notice issued by the town’s government and circulating online since October 19 which said the conflict in Pang Hseng had caused injury and property loss among Wanding residents. It asked that they minimise outdoor activities and take shelter when they hear gunshots.

But he said efforts to evacuate local residents faced resistance. Many had lost their incomes when the trade link with Myanmar was disrupted in March.

One local resident surnamed Li said it was difficult deciding whether to leave his home of three decades and that he needed more assurances from the government.

Li, whose family owns a small restaurant in the town, said his income had already dropped by more than half since August when the government restricted eateries to serving takeaway food only.

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This evacuation came two months after more than 5,000 people from Ruili’s Jiegao district were asked to move to a quarantine centre 100km (62 miles) away to allow a temporary “no man’s land” to be created along the border to stop Covid-19 cases being brought into China by smugglers.

Jiegao district and Wanding town are near the Jiegao bridge, a major road link between China and Myanmar, and were once vibrant trading hubs occupied by jade and tin traders from both sides of the border.

The spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos has become a major headache for Yunnan province, China’s entrance to Southeast Asia. It continues to see imported cases, some of which have been found to be the source of local infections.

Ruili’s streets are now deserted after China imposed strict Covid-19 prevention measures along its border with Myanmar in March, including closing the Jiegao bridge, repatriating immigrants found to be in the city illegally, erecting barbed-wire fences on the border and enforcing a prolonged lockdown of Ruili.

Thousands of Ruili residents posted complaints on social media platforms broadcasting a press conference by city officials to address Covid-19 control on Tuesday. Some said their patience and savings had run out because there was “no light at the end of the tunnel” after the city had endured more than 200 days in lockdown.

But during the press conference, Ruili’s deputy mayor Yang Mou said the city’s administration would not relax the containment measures because the pandemic prevention and control situation in Ruili remained “severe and complex” because of its proximity to Myanmar.

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Yang also stressed that the city would continue its strict lockdown policy, with tough requirements for anyone seeking to leave, including getting approval from the pandemic command centre and paying up front for the cost of up to 21 days in quarantine before they can depart.

The February 1 military coup in Myanmar has triggered nationwide protests and strikes among its health workers, causing the health system to collapse and affecting vaccination and testing. By Tuesday, Myanmar had reported about half a million confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 18,500 deaths.

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