Dozens of Myanmar troops killed fighting northern rebels

Kelly Macnamara
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Shan State Army - South (SSA-S) soldiers march through the town of Lot Tai Leng, in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State, on February 3, 2015, a few days ahead of the Shan National Day celebrations

Shan State Army - South (SSA-S) soldiers march through the town of Lot Tai Leng, in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State, on February 3, 2015, a few days ahead of the Shan National Day celebrations (AFP Photo/Kc Ortiz)

Yangon (AFP) - Heavy fighting between Myanmar's army and rebels has killed 47 soldiers, state media said Friday, sending a flood of people across the border with China and overshadowing hopes for a national ceasefire as a crucial election looms.

Myanmar has informed Beijing about the clashes, which have raged since February 9, according to the Global New Light of Myanmar, marking a dramatic resurgence of conflict with largely ethnic Chinese rebels in the Kokang region in Shan State.

The flaring of a conflict which had been largely dormant for six years, is an ominous sign for the government as it attempts to forge a comprehensive ceasefire deal with the country's myriad ethnic armed groups -- a deal it says is essential to embed reforms and drive development.

Kokang fighters with "heavy weapons including anti-aircraft machine guns" attempted to capture the region's capital Laukkai, just a few miles from the Chinese border, but were repelled by the army, state media said.

"So far, the fighting has left government forces with 47 dead, 73 wounded and five vehicles destroyed," said the English language report.

It is unclear what provoked the latest round of violence, which was announced as the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of independence hero Aung San -- the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- who is lauded for backing political autonomy for ethnic areas.

Information Minister Ye Htut blamed local Kokang rebel leader Phone Kya Shin for the fighting and called on Beijing to reign in any local officials who might be helping the group on their side of the border.

"I think the Chinese government should scrutinise the acts of regional authorities if they want to keep goodwill and friendship with Myanmar and stability in the border area," he told AFP on Thursday.

- Refugees flee -

The intensity of the fighting sent people fleeing from the remote, mountainous wedge of land across the frontier into China.

"China has provided them with necessary humanitarian assistance. As soon at the situation subsides, they will return to Myanmar," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Friday, without estimating the number of those affected.

Myanmar's army, which has rarely admitted to such large casualties in the past, launched five rounds of airstrikes in its assault on the Kokang fighters, state media reports said, detailing a litany of attacks by the rebels including the "shelling" of a military base in the Kongyan area.

Independent analyst Richard Horsey said the fighting was likely to continue.

"Having suffered such significant loses, local commanders are not going to want to give up on this one," he told AFP.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian regime, which took power in 2011 after decades of military rule, has put ending the country's ethnic minority conflicts at the heart of its reform drive.

But conflict between the military and armed groups is also raging in other parts of Shan and northern Kachin states, undermining the government's efforts.

It had hoped to sign a deal on Thursday, as the country celebrated its annual Union Day celebrations in Naypyidaw.

Instead, the government, military and some ethnic groups penned a commitment to continue talks, laying out an aim to build a union "based on democratic and federal principles".

Experts say the inclusion of the federal ideal, a key demand of ethnic minorities, marks a watershed in the negotiations because the army had resisted signing up to any deal on federalism until now.

- Patchwork of ethnicities -

In Kachin state, some 100,000 people have been forced into displacement camps by heavy fighting between local rebels and the national army, which erupted in 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire crumbled.

The unrest has increasingly spread to various parts of northern Shan state, where last week the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) also accused the army of using helicopter gunships to attack its positions.

Myanmar, which has more than 130 recognised ethnic minorities, has suffered the world's longest civil war, with pockets of unrest breaking out soon after independence in 1948.

The army, which seized power in 1962, used the unrest as a justification for its iron-fisted rule and has been accused of widespread human rights abuses in border areas, where tussles over abundant resources have further fuelled fighting.

Observers say a well-trailed general election, expected for late 2015, adds urgency to the talks.