FRESH fighting in Myanmar’s northeast Shan state erupted Saturday after days of clashes between ethnic fighters and government troops that broke a 20-year-old ceasefire.
The exodus of as many as 30,000 people across the border into China’s Yunnan province is likely to strain ties between Yangon and Beijing, whose trade provides an economic lifeline for a country crippled by Western sanctions.
The Myanmar regime wants ethnic groups to take part in its elections next year, the first in two decades. Activists and observers say the junta is trying to forcibly recruit rebel fighters for an army-run border patrol force.
Analysts say the aim is to disarm the ethnic insurgents and neutralize their threat ahead of the polls. They say the clashes erupted because of their refusal to agree to the army’s demands.
The groups do not trust the regime and feel they have nothing to gain by taking part in the electoral process.
The fighting has been between the Kokang Group, also known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Myanmar army, backed by fighters from a local splinter group.
An alliance of ethnic groups, known as the Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front (MPDF), has called for dialogue with the junta and has issues statements to the regime, and to Beijing, urging an end to hostilities.
The alliance involves the MNDAA, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the United Wa State Party (UWSP). The groups are aware that a joint effort is necessary to counter the Myanmar army.
There are concerns that if the fighting intensifies, other members of the alliance could enter the fray and provide a serious challenge to the Myanmar army, resulting in fierce fighting and heightening the risk of a refugee crisis for China.
The Wa are widely regarded as a formidable fighting force, with at least 15,000 armed members, but they are not involved, yet. The Shan State Army, which is outside of the alliance, might also seek to capitalize on the instability and strengthen its own position in the region.
Analysts say a lot is at stake for all groups involved — China included — and neither side will want to engage in any kind of protracted conflict. However, any wrong moves by forces on the ground could trigger an all-out war.
“There’s a degree of brinkmanship that’s extremely precarious and things could get out of control,” said Anthony Davis, a security analyst at IHS-Jane’s.
Beijing, one of Myanmar’s few diplomatic backers, has called on Myanmar to maintain stability in the border region and urged more measures to protect the security and legal rights of Chinese citizens there.
It has beefed-up its security presence in the border area and is providing support for refugees, giving them instant noodles, water and temporary housing.
In the almost five decades it has ruled the country, Myanmar’s junta has never been able to establish control in the region and wants to do so before next year’s elections.
It wants to bring the groups into the political fold to neutralize their threat and give legitimacy to the polls, but its breach of the ceasefire will seriously complicate matters.
Floods of refugees entering China, shelling over the border and injuries to Chinese civilians are likely to anger Beijing, although not enough for a rare intervention or any move that would damage their close, but increasingly awkward, relationship.
“This is an irrational and short-sighted move by the army. Not only have they increased tensions and caused distress with the ethnic groups, they’re straining ties with China,” said Aung Zaw, editor of Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, told Reuters. “Beijing’s biggest concern is stability near the border, and it is not pleased about what’s happening now.” — Reuters