YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Fighting between Myanmar troops and ethnic Kokang rebels near the Chinese border has left more than 130 dead since the clashes started Feb. 9. The government has imposed a state of emergency and military administration in the region, which gives the army executive and judicial authority there. More than 50 soldiers and 70 Kokang rebels have died, and tens of thousands of civilians have fled into China for safety. Here is a look at the key issues and background to the fighting:
The Kokang guerrillas were the main fighting force for the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party until signing a cease-fire with the then-military government in 1989. The group formally calls itself the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Party. Kokang leader Phone Kya Shin and his commanders fled Myanmar in 2009 after government forces raided a Kokang weapons factory and reportedly confiscated nearly 12 million methamphetamine tablets from the homes of the guerrillas' leaders. The Kokang said the raids were payback for their refusal to have their troops join a government border guard force. U.S. officials have long suspected Phone Kya Shin, also known as Peng Jiasheng, of playing a major role in drug trafficking, initially in opium and more recently in methamphetamines. Officials blame the renewed fighting on a renegade faction led by Phone Kya Shin, which attempted to seize Laukkai, the capital of the self-administered Kokang zone.
The government says its troops were attacked by Kokang rebels and regard the attack as a threat to state sovereignty. President Thein Sein said he will not give "an inch of territory" to the rebels, and the government has said it will not negotiate a ceasefire as it is an attack on their territory. The elected government that has led Myanmar since 2011 has been striving to strike a peace agreement with about a dozen ethnic rebel groups that have fought for decades for greater autonomy. But the upsurge in fighting, some of the fiercest in the country in at least two years, is jeopardizing its chances.
OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Myanmar's government has accused several other ethnic groups of supporting the Kokang rebels in combat, naming guerrilla armies from the minority areas of Kachin, Mong La, Wa, Palaung and northern Shan. All groups have denied involvement in the fighting, but all of them, including the 11-member ethnic umbrella group called the United Nationalities Federal Council voiced sympathy with the Kokang and called on the government to hold talks.
China's government has disavowed any links with the militants, saying it respects Myanmar's sovereignty and that it will not allow any group to use Chinese territory to destabilize the neighboring country. Still, Myanmar officials have said former Chinese soldiers have trained the militants, an allegation the militants have denied. The rebels are led by ethnic Chinese, and tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting have crossed into China's Yunnan province where local officials have given them shelter and care and where China's military has stepped up patrols. Chinese official broadcasters have done some reporting on the fighting but very little coverage of the refugee situation in Yunnan.
WHAT IS THE FIGHTING ABOUT?
Phone Kya Shin's Kokang rebels claim to be fighting for the rights of the ethnic group, a similar claim to other minority fighting groups. But while his group's refusal in 2009 to submit its troops to central authority was a stand shared by other ethnic armies, the current struggle appears to be more a comeback effort by Phone Kya Shin to regain power over an area that supports lucrative trading and smuggling because of its location on the border with China. Other ethnic groups may want to take advantage of the situation by using it as leverage for better terms for a comprehensive peace agreement with the government. Myanmar's official statements on the fighting show suspicion about China's role and intentions in an area where it already has great influence.