26 Aug 2009 11:41am
Thousands flee Burma into China
BANGKOK, August 26 - Tensions between Burmese government troops and an armed ethnic group have sparked an exodus of thousands of people into China from northeastern Burma, activists and witnesses said on Wednesday.
Large groups crossed the border on Tuesday from Kokang in Burma's Shan state, said a witness in Nansan, a town in China's southern Yunnan province. About 10,000 people have fled Kokang since August 8, China's Chongqing Evening News reported.
The Washington-based US Campaign for Burma said tensions had first flared on August 8, when the Burmese army deployed hundreds of troops in Kokang, a mostly ethnic Chinese region where rebels have observed a two-decade-old ceasefire with the government.
The rebels issued a statement via the Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front (MPDF), a newly formed alliance of four ethnic groups, saying the army was pressuring its fighters to join a border security force under the government's control ahead of Burma's elections, planned for 2010.
"Tensions are extremely high," the MPDF said in the statement issued via the US Campaign for Burma. "With anticipation of resurgence of war, tens of thousands of ethnic people have fled."
Xie Feifei, a Nansan shop owner, said refugees were being housed by the local government in disused or half-built homes. He did not know of any who had been sent back.
"We haven't had anything like this happen for about 10 years," Mr Xie told Reuters on Wednesday. "Many people have been coming across the border but it's fallen off now. I think everyone who wants to escape has already."
However, a local government official in Nansan told Reuters that no refugees had entered the town.
The US Campaign for Burma said the mobilisation of troops was a move by the Burmese junta to force ethnic groups to form political parties to contest next year's election, the first in Burma in 20 years.
Many ethnic groups think they have nothing to gain from running in the polls and suspect the junta is trying to neutralise their threat by bringing rebel fighters into the army under the command of the Burmese regime.
The MPDF and Chinese media said troops had attacked a factory used by the ethnic groups to service and repair weapons on suspicion that it was being used to produce illicit drugs. They said a stand-off had ensued, prompting thousands to flee the area. Burma, which has been ruled by the military since a 1962 coup, is home to more than100 ethnic groups.
Many armed groups observe a ceasefire with the government but several have resisted. Ethnic insurgencies have continued, in many cases fuelled by the opium trade.