Fighting has erupted between ethnic Kokang rebels and government forces in northeastern Myanmar’s Shan state, sources and state media said Tuesday, sending refugees streaming across the border into China, which urged the two sides to return to negotiations for a cease-fire agreement.
Clashes broke out on Monday when rebel troops, known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), attacked Myanmar military positions in the Kokang area of Shan state, the official Global New Light of Myanmar reported.
“While the State is making all-out efforts for reaching a nation-wide ceasefire, the renegade groups of Kokang have ambushed the troops of the Tatmadaw (military),” the report said, adding that the clashes had created “worries” among residents who feared “recurring fighting there.”
President Thein Sein had hoped to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement with Myanmar’s myriad armed ethnic groups by Feb. 12, Myanmar’s Union Day, though rebel groups have said more time is needed to iron out the details of the pact.
The New Light reported two clashes in Laukkai township on Monday and another four on Tuesday, as government forces engaged with “Kokang renegade troops” after acting on tips from area residents.
The report said the rebels fled the military advance on Tuesday, and did not mention any casualties as a result of the fighting.
MNDAA spokesman Tun Myat Linn told RFA’s Myanmar Service that three government troops had been killed on Monday, while four rebel soldiers had been injured. “Three or four” MNDAA troops were wounded on Tuesday, he said, though he was unsure of the number of military casualties.
Tun Myat Linn denied that the MNDAA had attacked government troops, saying that the rebels—with a force estimated at around 3,000—would never have stood a chance engaging the far larger and better supplied military.
“We were just there staying peacefully at our homes, but because they started attacking us, we had to defend ourselves,” he said.
“In the future as well, if they start to attack us, we will have to fight back. We are only at the level of defending ourselves—we are much weaker in terms of arms and manpower.”
Local media reports said the MNDAA had been joined in the clashes by allies the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakanese Army (AA), in an effort to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which the MNDAA controlled until 2009.
The reports also said helicopter gunships had been used by the military to attack the rebels.
Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, was unable to confirm the involvement of other ethnic rebel groups.
“The current situation, however, is that the government units are able to control [the MNDAA],” he told RFA, adding that the military had seized arms from the rebels, while “some of them were killed and some were wounded.”
On Tuesday, China expressed concern about the renewed fighting that had caused refugees to seek safety within its borders and urged the two sides to “stick to peaceful talks” to avoid further escalation of tensions.
“Since yesterday, out of safety concerns, many Myanmar residents living along the border have crossed the border into China's territory, and they are now properly settled,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing, without providing a number.
“China will follow closely the situation on the ground and respond accordingly so as to maintain the stability of China-Myanmar border. We hope Myanmar can also work in that direction.”
The MNDAA was formerly part of a China-backed guerrilla force called the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and became the first of about a dozen factions to sign a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the government after the group broke apart in 1989.
However, the agreement faltered in 2009 when armed groups came under pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar’s military—a move the MNDAA resisted.
In December, seven soldiers from Myanmar’s military were killed and 20 others wounded in an attack by the MNDAA on an army outpost in Shan state around 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Chinese border.
Most of Myanmar’s ethnic groups have been fighting for decades but have temporary, bilateral cease-fire agreements with the government, except for the KIA and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Thein Sein, however, had aimed for the country’s ethnic, military, and political groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire deal on Union Day so the country can move forward with political dialogue soon afterwards, but rebel groups say certain points of a draft agreement still need to be discussed.
Last September, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents more than a dozen rebel groups, and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) failed to reach a nationwide cease-fire agreement after five days of talks.
The meetings ended following disagreements over military issues and a format for talks on providing greater power to ethnic states, although they agreed in principle to a new draft accord.
Sporadic attacks by armed ethnic groups and government forces in various hotspots around the country have also prevented significant progress in the ongoing talks between government and rebel negotiators.
Myanmar’s ethnic groups have been seeking a federal system since the former British colony known as Burma gained independence after World War II, but the country’s former military rulers have resisted their efforts because they equate local autonomy with separatism.
Reported by Zin Mar Win and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.