More fighting feared as thousands flee Burma

More fighting is expected in northeastern Burma after tensions between the junta and ethnic rebel groups forced tens of thousands to flee to the Chinese border, activists said on Thursday.

The exodus from Kokang in Shan State began on August 8 after Burma’s junta deployed troops to the mainly ethnic Chinese region, said the United States Campaign for Burma (USCB).

It said that “tens of thousands of ethnic people” fled to the China-Burma border after tensions were heightened on August 8.

China’s Chongqing Evening Post reported on Wednesday that up to 10 000 refugees had fled from the area to the Chinese border town of Nansan in southwestern Yunnan province between August 8 and 12.

The exodus began when Burma sent dozens of military police to crack down on a gun repair factory suspected of being a front for drugs production, sparking fear among the locals, the report said.

Although the newspaper said the situation had since eased, with China assisting to repatriate the refugees, the Washington-based USCB warned of more confrontation after tensions “escalated to a dangerous level” in recent days.

The campaign group said a 20-year long ceasefire between Kokang rebels and Burma’s government now seemed to be “effectively broken”.

“More confrontation and military encounters are expected in the following days and thousands of villagers are fleeing to the China-Burma border to avoid the war, and subsequent human rights abuses,” it said.

Burma, under military rule since 1962, has signed ceasefires with 17 ethnic armed groups.

Rights groups have accused the military regime of committing crimes against humanity by targeting civilians during its offensive against ethnic rebels.

Tens of thousands of refugees live along Thailand’s border with Burma, most of whom have fled army crackdowns in the east.

USCB said it now expected the junta to employ similar strategies to “wipe out ethnic resistance” in northern Burma, resulting in more refugees and also more sexual violence in the region.

It added that the junta’s chance of moving forward with its plan for elections in 2010 were “very thin”, as it had failed to disarm ethnic ceasefire groups and make them join in the democratic process.

A border official in Nansan, who asked not to be named, confirmed that “many” Burma nationals had arrived in China in recent weeks, but could not give a precise figure.

He said local and provincial authorities had set up an office to deal with the influx of refugees, without elaborating.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Burma’s junta to immediately end attacks against civilians after thousands were displaced in Shan state.

It said that the Burma army had reportedly deployed battalions to clear civilians from large areas in central Shan between July 27 and August 1, burning down more than 500 houses as they attacked 39 villages in the area.

HRW said it thought the forced relocation operation was part of an intensified campaign against Shan State Army-South, an insurgent armed group that operates in the area.—AFP

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