Renewed clashes between ethnic armed groups and Burmese government forces in Shan State, reportedly killed nine Burmese troops on Thursday, leading more than 1,000 villagers to flee the fighting to the border with China.
Burmese government troops launched an attack on a Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) base in Nam Kham Township, a mountainous region of Burma that juts out in-between China and Laos, in the early hours of Thursday morning. About 1,000 villagers fled to Nam Kham town, while more fled across the China border to the Chinese town of Rulli.
Sources at Nam Kham hospital said nine Burmese government soldiers had been killed in Thursday’s fighting and eight are seriously injured, while Shan rebel sources told The Irrawaddy that the bodies 11 dead government soldiers had been recovered from the battlefield. One SSA-S fighter was reported dead and four injured, an SSA-S source said.
Sai Kyaw, an MP in Nam Kham, described hearing the first salvo from Burmese army positions. “I heard heavy gun fire from around 4.30am. The fire came from the countryside. Now the government army is firing artillery rounds near Naung Ma village,” he said. “Villagers are fleeing their homes. Some are running into China, while some take refuge at their relatives’ homes in Nam Kham.”
After a brief lull in artillery fire at about noon on Thursday, sources in Nam Kham said shelling had resumed throughout the afternoon.
“There shouldn’t be any fighting during ceasefire period,” Sai Kyaw added. “We should tackle disagreements through discussions.”
The expansion of fighting in Shan State, which broke out in early April between the SSA-North and Burmese military forces despite a ceasefire agreement, Maj Sai Lao Hseng said, shows the Burmese government is not serious about peace.
“The fighting broke out at 4am. The government troops from Infantry Battalion 145 attacked our frontline base. They launched artillery shelling,” Sai Lao Hseng said. One of our soldiers died. All of the villagers from Naw Ma village tracts in Naw Kham Township have fled their homes. Some crossed into China.
“As asked, we have been cooperating with the government in the peace process. But the government army has not obeyed the ceasefire, which is a part of the peace process. So we feel like the ceasefire is just a peace accord on paper. It doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground,” he added.
The Burmese military were unavailable for comment on Thursday.
The battle for Nam Kham seems to have started over the alleged arrest of four Burmese citizens by Shan rebels. Naypyidaw requested they be returned to where they were last seen near the Chinese border, but Shan rebels denied knowledge of their whereabouts. The Burmese military in Shan State then requested an inspection on May 2 of another Shan rebel base in the area. Under the pretext of the inspection, Burmese army units burned down the base.
The outbreak of fighting on Thursday comes amid a widening conflict in northeastern Burma, which intensified in December 2012 with heavy fighting in northern Kachin State leading to at least 70,000 Kachin refugees fleeing to China. Since early April, the Burmese military has expanded its campaign into northern and central Shan State in an attempt to seize bases along the strategically important Salween River.
David Eubank, the founder and director of the Free Burma Rangers, said: “The conflict between the government of Burma and the ethnic people of Burma goes on. There is a build-up of Burma Army positions in territory taken from the ethnic groups.
“No resolution has been agreed on. The root issues of ethnic rights, basic human rights, self-determination, local governance, transparency and justice must be addressed.”
There are fears that displaced villagers will be trapped by the violence, as China has reportedly sealed its border near the conflict zone.
Residents in Nam Kham speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone on Thursday said China was turning back refugees. Ferry gates leading from Nam Kham to China have now been closed. “I think people might be blocked in the war zone,” one resident said.
Daniel Pye contributed reporting from Rangoon.