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China has called for “restraint” in its first official acknowledgement of the escalating conflict over the border with Burma, following requests from the Kachin Independence Army that Beijing plays an intermediary role between it and the Burmese government.
Hong Lei, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson, told a press conference in Beijing today that the government was “paying attention to the situation in Myanmar [Burma] near the border area. We urge the two parties to exercise restraint and prevent the escalation of the situation, and resolve the relevant disputes through peaceful negotiations.”
The spokesperson of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political wing of the KIA, James Lundau, told DVB today that China was the only foreign power capable of negotiating between the two sides to bring about an end to the fighting.
China is also a stakeholder in the conflict: Lundau told DVB that 7,000 refugees had now fled to China, which will be monitoring the conflict in fear of its infrastructure projects in the region, including the controversial Myitsone Dam near the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina.
Fighting began on Thursday last week but temporarily quietened on Monday, with little indication of any major successes for either side. A spokesperson for the KIO in Laiza near the China border told AFP that, “Without the involvement of another country as a witness, as a facilitator… there is no solution.”
Casualty figures are hard to ascertain, not least because the Burmese government has made no public statement on the fighting. The conflict however seems part of a wider concerted effort to rein in key ethnic areas that, like Kachin state, have huge strategic and economic potential for Burma.
China has been a key ally to Naypyidaw but is ever wary of the instability that Burma’s ethnic politics seemingly creates. In August 2009 the Chinese chastised Naypyidaw for creating a similar influx of refugees, this time from the Kokang region in Shan state where fighting broke out.
The KIO’s 17-year ceasefire deal with the Burmese in 1994 allowed its to maintain arms in exchange for Burmese control of the crucial jade mines in areas such as Hpakant.
But the advent of the government’s Border Guard Force plan, which groups like the KIO refused to sign on account that it would effectively end their autonomy, has pushed the Burmese to aggressively attempt to bring the areas under their control.