Thousands flee Myanmar fighting

By Thomas Fuller
International Herald Tribune / August 29, 2009

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BANGKOK - After two decades of relative calm in northern Myanmar, fighting has broken out between the central government and upland ethnic groups, sending tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring China.

The fighting in Shan State, including two battles on Thursday near the Myanmar town of Kunglong, threatens to undo a fragile patchwork of cease-fire agreements that brought calm to the mountainous northern areas in the 1990s after decades of civil war.

What began days ago as fighting between soldiers from the Kokang minority group and central government troops now appears to have broadened to involve at least two more groups in the area, the Wa and the Kachin, both of which also oppose the central government.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Thursday that refugees were fleeing into Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar. An estimate by the US Campaign for Burma, a pressure group that opposes Myanmar’s central government, put the number of refugees at around 10,000. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma. The office of the United States High Commissioner for Refugees said it had received reports that 10,000 to 30,000 people fleeing the fighting had entered Yunnan Province since Aug. 8.

“We have been informed that local authorities in Yunnan Province have already provided emergency shelter, food, and medical care to the refugees,’’ the agency said in a statement.

The refugee crisis prompted China to make a rare comment about the internal affairs of one of its neighbors. Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that the government in Beijing “hopes that Myanmar can properly deal with its domestic issue to safeguard the regional stability of its bordering area,’’ Xinhua reported. She also said China was monitoring the situation and had expressed concern about the safety of its citizens in the area. More than a dozen armed ethnic groups are being pressed by Myanmar’s central government to give up their weapons and become border guards, an effort that appears to have galvanized the groups’ opposition toward the central government.

“In my 30 years’ experience on the border this is the first time I’ve seen such unity among the ethnic groups,’’ said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former soldier in the defunct Burmese Communist Party who monitors the conflict from his home in Ruili, along the China-Myanmar border.

Fighting between government forces and Kokang fighters took place Thursday morning in the village of Yan Lon Kyaik, only a few hundred yards from the border with China, Aung Kyaw Zaw said. It resumed Thursday evening in the village of Chin Swe Haw, where three Kokang fighters and several dozen government troopers were killed, he added. Yesterday there were at least three clashes, according to the US Campaign for Burma.

There was no way to independently confirm the accounts of the fighting, which occurred in a remote area along the border.