Myanmar declares state of emergency in Kokang region
Martial law will remain in force for three months. Yesterday a Red Cross convoy was attacked for the first time, two wounded. Concern in China for a possible mass exodus of refugees, thousands of civilians fleeing.

Yangon (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Myanmar's President Thein Sein has declared a state of emergency in the Kokang region, Shan State in eastern Myanmar, on the border with China, imposing martial law for the next three months.

The announcement came last night in a speech broadcast on state television and follows the recent violence in the area. The clashes between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the military broke out February 9, causing at least 47 deaths among soldiers and 26 among the rebels, thousands of civilians have fled the area seeking shelter in safer areas.

Yesterday two unknown assailants opened fire on a Myanmar Red Cross convoy (MRCS), injuring two people. The vehicles were carrying a group of civilians displaced by fighting in Laukkai, near the Chinese border. This is the first attack in the history of the country in a vehicle with the image of the institution humanitarian.

"They had never been attacks of this kind in the past," said Myint Shwe Cin, MRCS spokesman. "This is the first." At least one hundred people were part of the convoy and  many speak of a "miracle" that they were not killed.

According to Burmese soldiers MNDAA militias are responsible for the attack, but there has been no independent verification. Witnesses describe bullets "from both sides of the street". The shoot-out lasted at least an hour.

The clashes have sounded the alarm for Beijing, which fears a massive influx of refugees from Myanmar, and is clamoring for peace along the Burmese-Chinese border.

The Kokang are an ethnic group descended from the Han Chinese and their armed wing is what remains of the Communist Party of Burma, dissolved in 1989. For years they have independently ruled a strip of land along the northeastern border between China and Myanmar.

In 2009, fighting between ethnic militias and the army pushed tens of thousands of civilians across the border, in south-western China, placing a serious strain on relations with Beijing.

For decades the government of Myanmar - a nation composed of 135 ethnic groups, often in conflict with the central power - sought to contain the conflict with rebel groups seeking greater autonomy, particularly the Kachin and Shan.

Burmese President Thein Sein has long worked to reach a peace agreement; many groups are ready to sign up, despite sporadic outbreaks of violence and clashes with the regular army.