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Burma, Thailand Tense Amid Border Fighting - 2002-06-07

Tensions between Burma and Thailand remain high, with their navies patrolling close to each other in the Andaman Sea. Burma's military government is also keeping up a propaganda campaign against Thailand.

Fighting continues between the Burmese Army and ethnic Shan fighters near the border with Thailand. The fighting has killed or injured dozens over the past three weeks.

News reports have said the well-equipped Shan rebel fighters recently overran a government base. The Burmese army is said to be sending reinforcements.

So far, Thai officials say the fighting has not spilled over into Thai territory.

The Shan army, which has been fighting for greater autonomy from the central government for decades, said more than 300 Burmese and pro-Rangoon ethnic Wa have been killed. There were no details of Shan casualties. Burma has accused Thailand of supporting the Shan, an accusation the Thai Army denies.

Thailand said the Wa ethnic group draws its income from drug trafficking. Rangoon denies the charge, saying the Shan are behind a flood of illegal narcotics into Thailand.

Vessels from both navies have been dispatched to the Andaman Sea. Thai officials say there has been no naval confrontation but both sides made the deployments to safeguard territory.

Just a month ago, several senior Burmese officials visited Thailand, and their talks with Bangkok then were considered a success. Diplomats and analysts in the region play down any thought the current tensions could lead to cross-border skirmishes.

Professor Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwong is a political scientist from Chulaongkorn University. He says the current fighting is part of Rangoon's regular efforts to quash the rebels, both the Shan and the Karen National Union.

"I would say [the fighting] is an annual event in terms of the suppression that the Burmese government forces try to rid of the minority factions. A number of these factions have laid down their arms except a few, for instance the KNU (Karen National Union) and the Shan State Army," he said.

Despite efforts by Thailand to start talks, Burma continues to hold mass rallies denouncing the Karen National Union. One diplomat in Rangoon says the rallies refer obliquely to Thailand's alleged backing to the rebel armies.

Diplomats have said Burma's military government may be looking to distract citizens from the country's economic troubles. There also has been little sign of further dialogue with opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi since her release a month ago.

Professor Chaiyachoke said the Thai government is not unified in its approach to Burma. " The problem is not because of the conflict between Thailand and Burma itself, but because among the government agencies we are not united. Therefore this thing caused some sort of problem," the professor said.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is facing widespread criticism for his conciliatory approach. Thailand's efforts to commence dialogue with Burma have so far been turned down.