YANGON: Heavy recent fighting between Myanmar’s army and rebels near the border with China has killed 47 soldiers, state-backed media said on Friday, overshadowing hopes of forging ceasefires in the country’s many ethnic minority conflicts.
As the clashes ensued, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd of thousands also on Friday in the biggest celebrations honoring her independence hero father in memory, underscoring her legacy months before leading the opposition to momentous elections.
Myanmar has informed Beijing about the clashes, which have raged since February 9, according to the Global New Light of Myanmar, marking a dramatic resurgence of conflict with largely ethnic Chinese rebels in the Kokang region in Shan State.
Kokang fighters with “heavy weapons including anti-aircraft machine guns” attempted to capture the Kokang region’s capital Laukkai, just a few miles from the Chinese border, but were repelled by the army, it said.
“So far, the fighting has left government forces with 47 dead, 73 wounded and five vehicles destroyed,” said the English language report.
The resurgence of conflict in the Kokang area of Shan state, which had been largely dormant for nearly six years, is an ominous sign for the government as it attempts to forge a comprehensive ceasefire deal with the country’s myriad ethnic armed groups.
According to the state media report, a 200-strong force of Kokang rebels attacked a military base in the Kongyan area on Thursday, shelling the headquarters. The army has carried out five air strikes in retaliation.
Independent analyst Richard Horsey said attacks by the Kokang rebels appeared “quite audacious,” adding that fighting was likely to continue.
“Having suffered such significant loses, local commanders are not going to want to give up on this one,” he told Agence France-Presse.
He added that the description of the rebels as “renegades” in state media reporting could be an effort by the government to draw a distinction between the Kokang fighters and the ethnic armed groups taking part in ceasefire negotiations.
Ceasefire search undermined
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian regime, which took power in 2011 after decades of military rule, has put ending the country’s ethnic minority conflicts at the heart of its reform drive.
But conflict between the military and armed ethnic minority groups is also raging in other parts of Shan and northern Kachin states, casting doubts on the government’s long-sought nationwide ceasefire deal.
It had hoped to sign a deal on Thursday, as the country celebrated its annual Union Day celebrations in Naypyidaw.
Instead, the government, military and some ethnic groups signed a commitment to continue talks, laying out an aim to build a union “based on democratic and federal principles.”
Observers say the inclusion of the federal ideal, a key demand of ethnic minorities who have long fought for political autonomy, marks a watershed in the negotiations because the army had resisted signing up to any deal on federalism until now.
In Kachin state, some 100,000 people have been forced into displacement camps by heavy fighting between local rebels and the national army, which erupted in 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire crumbled.
The unrest has increasingly spread to various parts of northern Shan state, where last week the Ta’ang National Liberation Army also accused Myanmar’s army of using helicopter gunships to attack its positions.
Myanmar, which has more than 130 recognized ethnic minorities, has suffered the world’s longest civil war, with pockets of unrest breaking out across the country soon after independence from colonial rule in 1948.
Myanmar’s army, which seized power in 1962, used the unrest as a justification for its iron-fisted rule and has been accused of a litany of humanitarian abuses in border areas, where tussles over abundant resources have also added fuel to the fighting.
In scenes reminiscent of her triumphant election campaign three years ago, Suu Kyi addressed a huge crowd in her father’s central Myanmar birthplace, with many supporters waving her party flag or portraits of the general as an earnest young revolutionary in a military cap.
“If we want to inherit from my father, we have to build a real democratic nation,” said an emotional Suu Kyi, adding that his “sincerity” had ensured his legacy endured.
Known affectionately as “Bogyoke”, or General, Aung San is adored in Myanmar and credited with unshackling the country from colonial rule and embracing its ethnic minorities, in a vision of unity that unravelled catastrophically in the military-dominated decades that followed his 1947 assassination.
Suu Kyi was just two at the time of his death.
Thursday’s rally marking the centenary of Aung San’s birth in Natmauk — a remote town nestled in the dusty plains of central Myanmar — is the centerpiece of countrywide celebrations that are far more extensive than previous years.