Kokang conflict 'could spark bigger problems'

Sept 1, 2009 (DVB), Recent fighting between Burmese troops and armed ethnic groups could be the precursor to broader conflict between ceasefire groups and the ruling junta, says a prominent activist.

Fighting broke out last week in the Kokang region of Burma's northeastern Shan state, forcing around 37,000 people across the border into China.

Tension had been mounting between Burmese troops and the Kokang-based Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front (MPDF), following pressure from the junta on ceasefire groups to transform in border patrol militias.

The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) had also been urging groups to form political parties in lieu of elections next year.

According to Than Khe, chairman of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), which played a key role in the 1988 uprising, the fighting was a result of the junta rushing towards the elections "without properly solving political problems first".

"This could spark even bigger problems in the future. The fight may physically stop eventually but the problem would remain," he said.

The future of ceasefire agreements remains tenuous, with the MPDF receiving some backing from other ceasefire groups in the region.

According to some sources, around 500 troops from the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma's largest ceasefire group who along with the MPDF had signed a truce with the junta in 1989, joined with the Kokang army.

Pressure to transform into border guards has created increasingly noticeable fissures between the government and ceasefire groups, said a Sai Lao Hseng, spokesperson for the Shan State Army (SSA) South.

"This will make it even more difficult for the ceasefire groups to trust the SPDC government," he said.

Both the Kokang group and the UWSA are made up of ethnic Chinese, and China is thought to supply the UWSA with arms and economic support.

China issued a rare rebuke to Burma last week, urging the junta to solve problems that forced thousands into southern China.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu today appeared to placate the tension somewhat, stating that it was the "shared responsibility of both governments" to ensure stability of the border region.

Reporting by Naw Noreen

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