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Burma Refugees in China Head Home as Fighting Dies Down

Refugees that fled to China to escape fighting in Burma are beginning to head home after Burmese authorities said the situation has returned to normal. But analysts say more fighting could break out as Burmese forces try to consolidate control ahead of next year's elections.

Hundreds of refugees left China's Yunnan province Monday for home in Kokang, the mainly ethnic Chinese region of Burma's northeastern Shan state.

More than 30,000 people from Kokang had fled across the border to China to escape weeks of fighting between Burma's government forces and a local militia that controls the region.

Burma's state media reported more than 30 people were killed in the clashes but that the fighting in Kokang, which broke the region's 20-year ceasefire, had stopped.

Ian Holliday is dean of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong and researches Burma politics. He says Burma's military government is looking to take back control of the country's several militia-controlled areas in time for the 2010 elections.

"Ahead of that election, the junta is extremely keen to really pacify the entire territory and bring it under political control," said Holliday. "So, instead of having this rather gray area of a ceasefire deal which enables ethnic militias to control parts of the territory, the government now wants to make sure that its control extends across all of Burma. And, to do that, the government is upping the ante in its long standing struggle with these militias."

In June, Burmese forces attacked Karen rebels, who control territory on Burma's border with Thailand, forcing thousands of villagers to flee into Thailand.

Holliday says more fighting is possible in the coming weeks in other areas of Burma that are outside of government control.

But, he says the fighting in the Kokang region should stay quiet as China, one of Burma's few backers, is very concerned about stability on its western border.

"We are talking about something which goes right into Chinese security on a border which the Chinese themselves are very worried about," he said. "We have seen Tibet last year, we have seen Xinjiang this year... So, the last thing that they want is anything that might be destabilizing on a frontier like that.

Holliday says China has more leverage on Burma than any other country in the world and that it will use every means to prevent the spread of the conflict. But, he adds Beijing is facing an extremely nationalistic military government in Burma that does not like to take orders from anybody.