By THOMAS FULLER
The New York Times: June 15, 2011
BANGKOK — Fighting spread on Wednesday in the volatile northern reaches of Myanmar between a large rebel army and government troops, a rebel spokesman said, the latest flare-up in a simmering conflict between ethnic groups and Myanmar’s central government.
The battles, details of which are being reported by leaders of the Kachin ethnic group, are taking place near the Chinese border in a remote, mountainous part of Myanmar rich in jade and timber, traversed by drug warlords and ruled by a patchwork of ethnic armies. The clashes are a test for Myanmar’s nominally civilian government that took over from the military earlier this year. The fighting is also a threat to China, which is building hydroelectric dams in the area as well as a gas and oil pipeline that will link southern China to the Indian Ocean.
Brang Lai, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Army, the rebel group that controls a large piece of territory along the Chinese border, said in an interview that Kachin soldiers had been dispatched across a wide area after initial clashes that began June 8. Three Kachin soldiers have been killed in the fighting, he said by telephone from the town of Laiza, the Kachin headquarters.
More than a dozen government troops have been killed, according to Aung Din, the head of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group based in Washington. The death toll could not be confirmed independently, however. The clashes have not been reported in the tightly controlled media inside Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, nor has the government commented on them.
A spokesman for the State Department in Washington described the situation in the Kachin areas as “fluid and unpredictable” and said the United States was monitoring the reports of clashes.
“We call on Burmese authorities to cease any such hostilities and begin a dialogue with opposition and ethnic minority groups toward national reconciliation,” the spokesman said in an e-mail.
Hundreds of Chinese technicians and workers have been evacuated across the border into China as well as about 2,000 civilians, according to Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former soldier in the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party, who is in contact with leaders of the ethnic groups and lives on the Chinese side of the border. The fighting has hurt the jade business and other cross-border commerce, Aung Kyaw Zaw said in an interview, with at least four bridges destroyed in the area.
The clashes appear to have been sparked by the capture of three government soldiers last week by Kachin rebels after the military demanded that rebels abandon a guard post near the site of a hydroelectric dam being constructed by a Chinese company. The Burmese military then attacked the rebels.
“In the beginning it seemed like the Burmese wanted to launch limited warfare,” said Min Zin, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is currently along the China-Myanmar border researching the ethnic conflict. “But this may lead to a broader war.”
Northern Myanmar is one of the most unstable parts of Southeast Asia, with rebel armies controlling pieces of territory like medieval fiefdoms. More than a dozen ethnic groups across Myanmar have signed cease-fire agreements with the central government but those deals have frayed in recent years as the government has sought to consolidate its control and unify the country.
A recruiting drive in recent years by the Kachin rebels has increased their strength to about 7,000 men, according to Aung Kyaw Zaw. This would seem no match for Myanmar’s army which, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, is one of the largest forces in Southeast Asia.
But the Kachin know the terrain well and have a reputation as able jungle warriors going back to World War II, when they allied themselves with the United States and Britain and terrified Japanese soldiers by cutting off their ears as trophies.
“Our strategy is guerilla warfare,” said Brang Lai, who is an aide to Gun Maw, one of the Kachin’s senior leaders. “We don’t have sufficient supplies but our spirit is the most important thing.” The Kachin have laid land mines in the path of the government army, he said.
He did not rule out making targets of Chinese projects in the area, such as the gas pipeline, which is under construction. “Until now we don’t have the intention to disrupt the gas pipeline,” Brang Lai said. “We are waiting for the Chinese response.”
Chinese investment in northern Myanmar has increased manifold in recent years, including plantations, jade mines and infrastructure projects. The fighting complicates Chinese efforts to foster a peaceful balance between the central government and the rebels.
“It’s bad timing for the Chinese,” said Min Zin, the researcher. “The potential destabilizing affect might drive the Chinese to get involved more quickly then they want to.”
The fighting in the Kachin areas is the most serious outbreak of violence since clashes in August 2009 when Burmese government troops defeated the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese rebel group, sending thousands of refugees fleeing into China.