Fighting between Burmese government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels in northeastern Burma escalated on Wednesday, inflicting casualties on both sides and with civilians caught in the crossfire, according to sources in the area.
The battle near Burma’s border with China, triggered by an ongoing offensive by the Burmese military, involved the exchange of large artillery and may have led to a number of human rights violations by government troops, the sources said.
A Burmese reporter embedded near the fighting in a village outside the town of Momauk in Burma’s Shan State said the skirmish began early on Wednesday morning and lasted until 3:00 p.m.
“The Burmese army was firing 60 millimeter artillery shells towards the Kachin position and the KIA was firing back,” he said, referring to the Kachin Independent Army, a group which claims to number as many as 50,000 fighters, though other estimates trim the number to around 10,000.
“The government troops were uprooted from their position along a road and were forced to pull back. I saw at least one child soldier amongst their ranks.”
The reporter said heavy rains had caused damage to communication lines, throwing troops on both sides into disarray.
“A few KIA troops may have been killed by their own mines,” he said.
“One officer and two soldiers were killed. The officer was killed by friendly fire.”
The reporter said that a number of complications may have led the Burmese government troops to pull back.
“Maybe because they were unfamiliar with the area and they were using child soldiers—The Burmese army could be underestimating the Kachin. More government troops have died than members of the KIA,” he said.
“They are retreating and passing through the village where I am located to Kyauk Post about four miles (6.4 kilometers) away from the front. That is where the government has stationed its troops.”
The reporter said that the Burmese soldiers forced villagers to work as porters to carry their equipment, suggesting that they had committed rights abuses as they pulled back from their fighting positions.
“I heard that a husband and wife were shot as they went fishing for food in a stream near their village.”
The headman of a local village confirmed that the couple had been killed by Burmese soldiers while fishing.
“Yes, that’s true that the fishing couple was shot. And I also heard that people from the Moumak area were made to work as porters for the Burmese Army,” he said.
“My area is controlled by the KIO, not the government, so they can’t do that here. The KIA doesn’t bother us.”
The KIO, or Kachin Independence Organization, is the political wing of the KIA.
He said that many of the residents of the area had been forced to flee to the Chinese border to escape the fighting.
“The Chinese government won’t let them into the country and most are staying in camps along the border operated by the KIA,” the village headman said.
“The fighting is taking a heavy toll on the population here. People have no place to live and nothing to eat, which is made worse by the onset of the rainy season. Many of them are getting colds and coughs as the colder weather begins,” he said.
“The people have no one to turn to. If the government offensive persists, the people will continue to suffer. The troops have been forcing them to work as porters and if they suspect anyone of any wrongdoing, they intimidate, strike, or even kill them.”
The KIA and the Burmese military ended a 17-year ceasefire arrangement on June 9, with each side accusing the other of instigating the fighting.
Government troops say the KIA escalated tension after entering a joint Chinese and Burmese hydroelectric project and seizing ammunition from security guards.
The KIA contends that the fighting was caused by a breakdown in talks after Burma’s government sought to bring the group under its control as part of a Border Guard Force (BGF).
The group has refused to join the BGF, though some armed groups have agreed to the government policy in exchange for some political representation and limited autonomy.
The KIA have said they will not lay down arms until Burma’s newly elected government agrees to provide their ethnic group with full political power and other rights.
In the weeks following the end of the ceasefire agreement, some 10,000 Kachin refugees fled the fighting and attempted to enter China.
Rights groups have accused the Burmese military of carrying out a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in ethnic minority areas involving the rape, torture, and murder of villagers.
Local reports said the refugees were fleeing to escape being preyed upon by government forces, rather than because they feared the fighting itself.
Earlier this week, a group of legislators from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) requested that any decision to designate Burma as chair of the regional grouping in 2014 be put off until the government makes concrete efforts at reconciliation with the country’s ethnic groups.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.