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Clashes in Myanmar leave 1 dead, injure dozens

Sunday, August 30, 2009

BEIJING -- Heavy skirmishes resumed Saturday in northeastern Myanmar after days of fighting between government troops and ethnic rebel militia sent thousands of refugees streaming into nearby China. At least one person was killed and dozens injured in a bomb blast near the border.

The clashes pose a major concern to communist China and its goal of stability ahead of the sensitive Oct. 1 celebration of its 60th anniversary. A worried Beijing has told Myanmar to put an end to the fighting to "safeguard the regional stability."

The fighting threatens to strain China's close relationship with Myanmar's military junta, which has been trying to consolidate control over several armed ethnic groups along its borders to ensure next year's national elections, the first in nearly 20 years, go smoothly.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said up to 30,000 people have poured into the Chinese border town of Nansan from Myanmar's Kokang region since early this month. Chinese authorities are providing emergency food, shelter and medical care for the refugees, UNHCR said.

The situation presents a major dilemma for China because most of the refugees are Kokang, an ethnic Han Chinese minority group that speaks Chinese and has received support for decades from China because of its traditional ties to the Communist Party, said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine by Myanmar exiles.

"These are not your typical Burmese refugees," he said. At the same time, "China continued to provide support to these ethnic groups and support the junta. I think China is playing a doublefaced role in this conflict."

Myanmar is also known as Burma.

At least 25 people had been admitted to China's Zhenkang County People's Hospital for injuries related to the fighting as of Saturday, said a hospital official who refused to give her name. Most of the patients are ethnic Chinese from Myanmar, she said.

One person was killed and several were injured when a bomb was thrown across the border into China, He Yangchun, a Yunnan province Red Cross official, told the English-language China Daily. No other details were given. Calls to the Red Cross and local government officials rang unanswered Saturday.

Heavy fighting resumed Saturday morning, said a staffer at the Zhenkang County Public Security Bureau who only gave his surname, Hui.

"It seems that gunfire and artillery fire this morning is stronger than last night. Last night, it almost stopped and was pretty quiet. But this morning, at 7 or 8 a.m., the gunfire and shelling restarted. I can still hear the shooting right now," he said.

The provincial Yunnan government has said about 10,000 people from Myanmar's Kokang region in northern Shan state have crossed into China, and Chinese authorities are housing some in seven camps in and near the border town of Nansan.

The UNHCR said the numbers could be much higher.

"Our information is that as many as 30,000 people may have taken shelter in Nansan since Aug. 8, saying they were fleeing fighting between Myanmar government troops and ethnic minority groups," said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.

Chinese soldiers are now guarding the region near the border, which remains open, said Hui, the Chinese official. The camps where some refugees are being housed are under strict control, he said.

"Ordinary people cannot go near this area," Hui said. "Even police must be in uniform and police vehicles to come close."

China has been known to seal off entire regions of the country during times of unrest.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the border area remained tense Saturday, with "some small clashes" between the Kokang ethnic army and Myanmar government forces.

Earlier this year, the junta began its campaign to press ethnic groups into teaming up with the military to become border guards. The effort appears to have met widespread opposition from multiple ethnic minority groups, who have seldom been unified.

This spring saw a flurry of visits between high-level officials from China and Myanmar. China apparently was concerned that the plan would create problems, said Myanmar journalist and analyst Aung Zaw.

The Chinese leaders told Myanmar not to instigate problems or to use military means to try to solve their problems on the border, he said.

"They (the junta) wanted China to pressure these ethnic groups to disarm, but China told the Burmese leaders to do it in a peaceful way. Burma is now saying, 'No, we want to kick them out,"' Aung Zaw said. "Now it seems the Burmese didn't listen to China. That's a very interesting development."


Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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