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Myanmar border clashes spark fears of wider conflict

By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) – Myanmar troops clashed
with ethnic Kachin militias on Wednesday for a seventh day near two
Chinese-built hydroelectric dams, Kachin sources said, raising fears
that fighting could spread to other areas on the heavily militarised
border.
Light infantry units of Myanmar’s “Tatmadaw” army fought with guerrillas of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) who had cut some road and communication links to try to keep troops at bay.
“It’s tense. There were explosions and gunfights and the KIA has destroyed two bridges and cut telephone cables,” said Lahpai Naw Din, head of the Thailand-based Kachin News Group, “We have no idea about casualties,” he said, citing information from sources on the ground.
The fighting, which began last Thursday, has killed at
least four people and forced about 2,000 people to flee towards the
Myanmar-China border, the U.S. Campaign for Burma has said.
Some experts warned it could destabilise the mosaic of
ethnic enclaves and alliances across a region vital for China’s growing
energy needs. As well as the dams, China is building oil and gas
pipelines that will span its Southeast Asian neighbour.
“The outbreak of fighting has meant that the armed groups
and alliances that they formed may trigger the next level of fighting,”
said Emma Leslie, director the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, a
Cambodia-based group that has closely followed the conflict.
Ethnic militias in northern Kachin and Shan States, like the powerful United Wa State Army, the KIA
and the Shan State Army, have fought for decades against successive
military regimes that have run the former British colony since 1962.
Cease-fire arrangements have previously been made
allowing a degree of self-rule, but those deals were torn up last year
when the bigger armies refused a government order to disarm and form
political parties to run in a November 7 general election.
Repeated efforts by the SSA, UWSA and KIA
to negotiate with the government have failed and their fighters have
long been preparing for an all-out offensive by the Tatmadaw.
MATERIAL INTERESTS’
Most analysts say Myanmar’s 10-week-old government is not
ready to go to war with the militias but is under pressure to secure
the dams and pipeline construction sites to appease China, its biggest
political and economic ally.
Some suggest the KIA, which was
shut out of lucrative energy deal between the two countries, might have
escalated tensions to force the government to negotiate and offer some
financial incentives, such as protection money.
“This is mainly about material interests,” said Lin
Xixing an expert on Myanmar expert at Guangzhou’s Jinan University. “The
Kachin also want a piece of the action.”
Lin said it was likely China would use its diplomatic clout with both the rebels and the Myanmar government.
“There is often friction in the area. But I don’t think
this will become too intense,” said Lin. “The Chinese government has
good contacts with both sides and will ask them to maintain the security
of the frontier lands.”
Neither Myanmar’s government nor its media mouthpieces
have commented on the fighting but sources in the region said it centred
on control of the dams.
“We don’t think the government wants to launch a major offensive against the KIA,” an official from a mining company based in Myitkyina, the Kachin capital, told Reuters.
“So far as we heard they just wanted to drive the KIA away from the Tapain hydropower project.”
That will, nonetheless, be a worry for Beijing.
In August 2009, an offensive by government troops against
a Shan State militia group sent 37,000 refugees fleeing briefly into
China. If the latest conflict with the bigger Kachin group grows, the
exodus from Myanmar could be greater.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last month told new Myanmar
President Thein Sein that China wanted “smooth progress” on the oil and
gas pipelines projects and President Hu Jintao pressed his counterpart
to ensure stability at the border.
Categories: Asia Pacific, World News
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