Escalating clashes between the Burmese military and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have led China to tightened border security, stemming the flow of civilians fleeing the violence and hindering bilateral trade, according to traders and political analysts in the area.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar reported Friday that recent battles between government troops and Kachin ethnic rebels had killed 31 people, despite recent pledges by President Thein Sein’s reformist government to negotiate a ceasefire with the group as part of a nationwide reconciliation.
The official newspaper said 11 clashes took place in the last week of April, including what it said was an attack by Kachin rebels on a government border guard base "to save face for its declining military prestige."
It said the clashes had left 29 Kachin rebels dead, while government forces suffered two dead and 15 wounded.
The reports also said that the Kachin rebels had blown up parts of three bridges on Wednesday and Thursday, and that the rebels had forced 345 villagers to serve as porters.
Kachin spokesmen have not commented on the reports.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military and political analyst based on the Burma-China border, told RFA that Thursday’s clashes had left the area in disarray and that residents were expecting more attacks to come.
"[Near] Muse there was a clash [Thursday] morning and the roads are now blocked. After the KIA withdrew [when their base was overrun] … all the remaining troops have become guerrillas, operating in the jungle,” he said.
Muse is a town located just outside of Kachin state and along the Chinese border in northeastern Burma’s Shan state.
“There are KIA guerrillas everywhere. It is not clear which troops belong to which side.”
Residents at risk
Aung Kyaw Zaw said that local residents had found themselves in an increasingly dangerous situation and that the number of internally displaced persons (IDP) is on the rise, with many fleeing to the Chinese border.
“The Burmese troops are not only increasing their manpower, but have been firing heavy artillery towards Laiza continuously for the past 10 days, ranging from 30 to 50 a day. They are even shelling areas they hadn’t normally shelled before,” he said.
Laiza is located in eastern Kachin state near the Chinese border.
“The people are very frightened to return home. If there will be a full scale war, there will be even more refugees heading to the border.”
Aung Kyaw Zaw said that many residents from the Pan War area of Kachin state’s capital Myitkyina had already left their homes and headed toward the border, alerting Chinese border checkpoints where additional Chinese troops had been deployed.
“In Myitkyina, [government troops] are already preparing fighter planes and helicopters, and many troops are arriving. People expect a large government attack on the KIA soon.”
He said the border gate through which Chinese goods usually pass into the area had been closed and that Chinese authorities were not allowing vehicles from Burma to pass through.
A trader from Muse also told RFA Thursday that Chinese authorities had tightened border security.
"The Chinese side has been checking for security purposes. It seems they are afraid of people entering from the Burma side, so they are checking people and cars entering China,” said the trader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Because of the closure of some border gates by the Chinese, Chinese goods are no longer entering Burma via the road to Myitkyina.”
On Thursday, China's Ministry of Commerce urged Chinese enterprises and citizens in Burma to step up security precautions as clashes in northern Burma escalated.
Chinese firms and personnel should avoid traveling to the area for investment or other activities, and those already there should be on higher alert, the ministry said in a statement, adding that the safety situation in the region is “grim.”
The Burmese government and the Kachin political wing, or Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have held six round of talks since January aimed at signing a ceasefire agreement, but little has been achieved.
The last round of talks was held in March with no date or location agreed up for a follow-up meeting.
The Burmese government has signed preliminary peace agreements with 12 ethnic groups in the country’s border regions since Thein Sein called for an end to ethnic conflict in August last year.
And in January, the president ordered the military to end offensives in minority conflict zones except in self-defense.
But fighting in Kachin state has continued since a ceasefire pact was shattered last year, leaving about 60,000 people displaced from their homes, according to U.N. estimates. Thousands more have fled across the border into China.
The 17-year treaty between the 8,000-strong rebel army and the Burmese military broke down when Burma’s then-ruling junta tried to force Kachin troops to form a border guard under government leadership. Clashes between the two have been ongoing since June.
Western governments have said that an end to the conflict is an important requirement for closer ties and the removal of sanctions.
In the first address to Burma’s parliament by a foreign dignitary, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called Monday for an end to the conflict, saying it is “inconsistent with the successful conclusion of the ceasefire agreements with all other major groups.”
Reported by Nyan Wynn Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.