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Burma Clashes Raise Concern of Spreading Conflict

  • Daniel Schearf

Fighting in northeast Burma between the army and ethnic Kachin rebels has spilled over into neighboring Shan state, raising concerns about the conflict spreading. Thousands of villagers have fled to the border with China, which is urging restraint from both sides.

Sporadic clashes continued Thursday between Burma's army and ethnic Kachin rebels near a mountainous border with China.

The fighting in northern Kachin state, which started a week ago, has spilled into neighboring Shan state, home to the ethnic Shan.

The Shan Herald, an exiled media group based in Thailand, reported that Wafive Burma army battalions were moving in on another rebel group, the Shan State Army.

The spreading fight raises concerns that the conflict could quickly get out of control.

Khuensai Jaiyen, editor for the Shan Herald, says if other ethnic rebels join the fight it could become a larger war. He says ethnic leaders are hoping that Beijing will intervene to stop the fighting before it gets worse.

"They think that China has a lot of stake in the security and stability of the border," said Khuensai. "Even Beijing had said so since the Burma army attacked Kokang, another ethnic group, in 2009."

The fighting two years ago between the Burmese army and Kokang rebels sent thousands of villagers fleeing into China. The instability prompted Beijing to issue a rare criticism of the government of Burma, a close ally.

The latest fighting broke out in a region where China is building hydropower plants. It is not clear what sparked the clashes. Khuensai says fighting began when Burma sent soldiers to ensure security at the plants while other reports say a prisoner exchange between the two sides went bad.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Thursday said Beijing is concerned about the fighting.

He says they are following the situation along the border closely and urge all parties to exert calmness and restraint to avoid escalating the situation and to resolve their differences through negotiation.

The clashes in Kachin state this past week also sent thousands of villagers toward China, but reports say Chinese authorities stopped most of them at the border.

Hong denies China is blocking those fleeing the fighting.

The Washington-based rights group U.S. Campaign for Burma says several soldiers were killed in the fighting.

Burma's government has not issued any official comments on the clashes and it is almost impossible to confirm the details as the area is remote and journalists are not allowed to visit.

The Kachin Independence Army, like several other ethnic militias, signed cease-fire agreements with Burmese authorities in the 1990s, ending years of fighting for independence.

But some hostilities resumed in 2009 when the military began pressuring groups to come under their authority as a border protection force.