Fifty government troops and police officers died in clashes last week with ethnic minority insurgents in Shan state, Burma (Myanmar) near the border with China, state media reported, as the military carried out air strikes against the rebels.
Kokang ethnic rebels in a group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the northeastern state attacked a military headquarters, a local administration office, a prison, a police outpost and an army base in Laukkai, capital of the self-administered Kokang zone last week.
Some 73 troops and soldiers were injured in the attacks, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported. Soldiers found 13 bodies of rebels and seized 98 small weapons and ammunition near Laukkai. The region is about 800km northeast of the country's biggest city, Rangoon.
Burma's government, run by former general Thein Sein, took power in 2011 after 49 years of rule by junta and has introduced many democratic reforms that have opened up the country to foreign investment.
It remains a poor country, despite higher investment. On the same page of the newspaper that reported on the ethnic violence there was a story about government ambitions that 50 per cent of households would have access to electricity by next year.
Talks in capital
The president held talks last week in the capital Nay Pyi Taw with ethnic leaders from the border regions as the government tries to implement a historic national ceasefire that will end the various regional insurgencies that flare up regularly in Burma since it gained independence in 1948.
News that the government used air strikes against ethnic minorities will not have helped efforts to forge a nationwide pact. While it’s not clear what sparked last week’s violence, it coincided with Burma’s Union Day holiday.
The MNDAA is a splinter group made up of ethnic Chinese rebels which was once part of the Communist Party of Burma, a major China-backed guerrilla force that fought the central government until 1989.
It is led by Phon Kya Shin, and the current upsurge in violence follows an attempt by the group to seize Laukkai.
Air strikes from gunships, jets and helicopters had caused villagers to flee over the border to China, which has alarmed the government in Beijing.
China fears a major influx of refugees into its territory, as happened during similar clashes in 2009, and Beijing has called for peace in the border region.
On Saturday, Burma army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told local media the rebels were manufacturing guns and drugs in the region.
He also said other unnamed ethnic groups were supporting the Kokang rebels.
He is most likely referring to the Kachin Independence Army, a powerful group which has also fought government forces.
At issue in talks to forge a national peace plan – which has been signed by some ethnic groups but not the Kachin or Shan groups – are the rich natural resources, such as lumber and jade, in the areas where the rebels hold sway.