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More than 20000 refugees flee to China amid Myanmar ethnic conflict

10 March 2017

More than 20,000 Myanmar refugees have entered China, fleeing areas along the border after violent clashes broke out between the south east Asian country's army and ethnic rebels this week, Beijing said on Thursday.

Another estimated 20,000 people remain internally displaced in Rakhine state in the west because of inter-communal and military conflicts with Rohingya Muslims that the United Nations has said constitutes the "likely commission of crimes against humanity".

Fighters of the predominantly ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched a pre-dawn attack on police, military and government sites in Laukkai, the capital of Myanmar's northeastern region of Kokang.

He said that all sides needed to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and urged restraint to "prevent further escalation" and "to restore peace and stability to the border areas". The fighting has also raised fears of a repeat of 2015, when the displaced flooded across the border into China, raising tensions with Beijing.

Chinese foreign spokesman Geng Shuang said aid was being offered to those looking to "temporarily avoid the war", and called for an immediate ceasefire, adding that China supported Myanmar's peace process.

MNDAA is part of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of rebel groups comprising one of Myanmar's most powerful militias, the Kachin Independence Army, and two smaller groups that have been in a stand-off with Myanmar's military since clashes in Kokang two years ago.

But fighting has surged since previous year as the army clashes with several different ethnic armed groups, undermining a government bid to forge peace.

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Experts say the fighting in the frontier areas is at its most intense since the 1980s, casting a pall over peace talks organised by the new civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

"The government military has been asking us to abandon our weapons for a long time, but we stand firm on resolving political conflicts through political means instead of abandoning our weapons", he said.

It said the attack on the government-controlled town of Laukkai killed five policemen and five civilians.

"Residents in town are fleeing", an army officer told AFP.

The military said it recovered 20 charred bodies it says belonged to fallen insurgents.

Kokang has close ties to China, with locals speaking a Chinese dialect and using the yuan as currency.

Observers believe Beijing holds some sway over the ethnic fighters and has a key role to play in peace talks that Myanmar's de facto leader Ms Suu Kyi has tried to revive since coming to power past year.

More than 20000 refugees flee to China amid Myanmar ethnic conflict