BANGKOK — Reports of fierce fighting between Burma's army and Kachin rebels has raised concerns, both domestically and internationally, about the fragile peace process and national reconciliation. The United States Ambassador to Burma has for the first time visited northern Kachin state to assess the situation.
Burma exile media reports the military last week used Russian-made helicopter gunships and heavy artillery to pound Kachin rebel positions near the border with China.
The Kachin News Group quoted a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization, La Nan, saying government troops attacked within a few kilometers of their bases.
La Nan also claimed dozens of Burma soldiers were killed in recent weeks of fighting along with a few rebels from the KIO's armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army.
The reports are difficult to verify as the area is remote and Burmese authorities rarely comment on casualty figures or details of battles.
But, Burma lawmaker Dwe Bu from Kachin State, says officials are denying the army attacked, and playing down the fighting.
She says the Army representative in parliament maintains they have not been attacking the KIA. The President's Office, she says, claims the current fighting is not serious. However, she says civilians in Kachin state say that strong battles are happening and if Burma's Army did not attack the KIA there would not be any fighting.
Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiations and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon, says the army claims to be defending itself when rebels attack the military, also known as the Tatmadaw.
"They may probably try to re-claim some of the territory -- what they lost in last year to the Tatmadaw," Min says."In the meantime, the Tatmadaw they also are increasing the number of battalions to protect their supply and logistic routes in the area."
A group of KIA attacked a police station in northern Kachin state Tuesday and at least one person was killed.
Fighting between the army and KIA broke out in June last year, shattering a 17-year ceasefire. Analysts say Burmese government attempts to pressure the rebels to join a border security force was partly to blame.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in the fighting.
Kachin state is also rich in areas of natural resources such as timber, jade and hydropower and parliamentarian Dwe Bu says both sides want to control those resources.
She says there are many reasons for the fighting but rich, natural resources is one of the main ones. Therefore, she says, a fair division of the benefits of natural resources is quite important for civilians. She says they need to raise this issue as an important one for discussion.
Burma authorities and the KIO have held several rounds of peace talks but with little progress. The KIO wants to discuss the sensitive issue of autonomy while the government says it wants to focus on a ceasefire.
The Myanmar Peace Center has been encouraging both sides to negotiate a withdrawal of troops but the KIO says it does not trust the authorities and has been reluctant to send a commander with decision-making authority.
Despite ongoing fighting, director Min Zaw Oo says the military is not likely to launch an all-out offensive as some fear. He says the recent fighting coincides with the "open season" when each side tests the other with military operations.
"In order to have such a ceasefire both sides have to take risks and meet and at least agree upon troop withdrawal and troop repositioning in the near future. Otherwise, this conflict may escalate, especially in this so-called open season," Min warns.
Burma has, since independence in 1948, struggled to contain rebels along its borders. Successive military governments cited the insurgencies as justification for staying in power and suppressing democracy movements. Rights groups say the military is responsible for abuses, including forced labor, rape, and murder.
Since taking office, the civilian government of President Thein Sein has undertaken political and economic reforms and made national reconciliation a top priority.
It signed numerous ceasefire agreements with rebel groups and ordered an end to offensive operations.
But the ongoing fighting in Kachin has raised concerns that the president is not yet in control of the military.
The United Nations this month urged Burma authorities to allow aid deliveries into KIA controlled relief camps. The government has allowed limited access in the past, but for months now blocked much needed food and medicine, saying it was not safe.
Critics say the military wants to pressure the rebels by cutting off supplies.
The United States Ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, paid a two day visit to Kachin state this week -- his first since becoming Ambassador in July.
Mitchell visited relief camps, met with local leaders and discussed getting humanitarian aid where it is needed, including KIA controlled territories.