US Expresses Concern Over Civilians Killed in Fighting in Myanmar Border Town

Twenty people die during an attack by an ethnic armed group on security posts and a casino in Muse.

A Myanmar army-linked militiaman secures a bridge in the border town of Muse in northeastern Myanmar's Shan state, May 12, 2018.

UPDATED at 9:30 A.M. EST on 2018-05-16

The United States on Monday expressed concern about the security situation in the Shan state town of Muse, a trade hub on Myanmar’s border with China, following weekend fighting between a government-backed militia and an ethnic army that left 20 people dead and more than two dozen injured.

A group of 50 soldiers from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) attacked Muse township’s police force and the Namkham Myoma local militia stationed at Pan Khan Bridge, the official Myanmar News Agency reported.

A government spokesman told Reuters that the insurgents numbered 100.

About 30 armed men fired in the vicinity of the home of local militia leader Aik San, while 10 others attacked township police personnel and militiamen stationed at the main border crossing with China, the report said.

The soldiers, who also fired small arms and heavy shells at Naungyan village, retreated after they were repelled by armed police and members of the government-backed militia, but the attacks left a policeman, four local militiamen, and 14 civilians dead on Sunday, the report said, citing the office of Myanmar military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing as the source.

Among the 27 injured were three Myanmar Police personnel, six militiamen, and 18 civilians.

“We are deeply concerned by the casualties caused by recent clashes between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, government security forces, and militias in Muse township in northern Shan state, and express our heartfelt sympathy to the families of those killed and injured in the conflict,” said a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Myanmar.

“We urge all relevant parties to exercise restraint in protecting the civilian population from further casualties, to allow humanitarian aid to reach all communities affected by conflict, and to negotiate for peaceful solutions to the problems that have plagued this nation for decades,” it said. “We stand ready to support such efforts.”

Knut Ostby, the European Union’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, also called on the warring parties on Sunday to exercise restraint in fighting to prevent additional civilian casualties and to allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance to affected communities.

TNLA spokesman Colonel Tar Aik Kyaw told Reuters that the ethnic militia also launched an assault against a local casino on the outskirts of Muse that is operated by a Myanmar army post and militiamen, which he claimed distributes illegal drugs.

He also called the attacks a response to Myanmar military assaults on TNLA outposts and retaliation for the army’s offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a TNLA ally, in Kachin state. Those clashes have displaced thousands of Kachin civilians since April.

One other civilian died on Monday while he was being transported from the hospital in Muse to one in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay, local sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

A Chinese man and a woman were among the civilians killed, though most of the others were migrant workers from Sinkku, Hteinkon, and Pakokku townships in central Myanmar’s Magway region, they said.

“While we were working, we heard the sound of heavy weapons, and we ran away,” said a migrant laborer from Pakokku, who did not give his name. “Our group had about 10 people. We didn’t have any injuries, but people from other groups were killed. They were from Sinkku township.”

Evacuating the dead, injured

Thaung Htun, chairman of Karuna Myanmar Social Services (KMSS), a faith-based social network in the service of the Catholic Church of Myanmar, said workers from the civil society organization arrived at the scene of the fighting in the evening.

“We evacuated the dead bodies and injured people from the battle scene in four vans from our organization,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that some of the bodies were transported to the decedents’ homes in Pang Sai, another Shan state border town, while others were taken to Mandalay, and the rest were buried in Muse the next day.

One female civilian who was killed was three months pregnant, he said.

“As soon as we found out about the fighting and that people were injured, we worked together with other civil society organizations to get them to the hospital,” said Muse township administrator Thu Rein. “Township and district authorities are helping and supporting injured people who are in the hospital.”

On Sunday, China denounced the hostilities on its border with Myanmar, which forced about 300 civilians to flee to safety in southwestern China’s Yunnan province and caused stray bullets to enter Chinese territory, according to news wire service reports. China also urged the parties involved to agree to an immediate cease-fire.

Deadly skirmishes between Myanmar soldiers and ethnic armies along the border in early 2017 forced tens of thousands of Myanmar residents to flee to safety mostly in China where the Chinese government housed them in refugee camps.

The TNLA and KIA have been engaged in long-running hostilities with the Myanmar army in northern Shan and Kachin states where they seek greater autonomy. Fighting in both regions has displaced more than 100,000 people, most of whom reside in refugee camps.

Neither the TNLA nor the KIA is a signatory of the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement inked with eight ethnic armed groups in October 2015, with two more joining the pact in February.

The ongoing fighting has stalled Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to bring warring factions to the negotiation table to end decades of civil war and forge lasting peace.

Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that both TNLA and KIA soldiers were involved in the attacks in Muse.