04/17/2015, 00.00
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Myanmar military clash with Kokang rebels, 16 soldiers killed and over a hundred wounded

by Francis Khoo Thwe
The fighting took place in north-eastern Myanmar, along the border with China. The military told displaced people to return home. But people are afraid of retaliation and more violence. So far, it is unclear how many people have died or are wounded. Aid workers have been denied access to the area where fighting is taking place.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – Sixteen Myanmar soldiers died and 110 were wounded on Thursday during a major offensive against ethnic Kokang insurgents in northeast Myanmar near the Chinese border, state media reported. Government troops also ordered refugees to return to their homes or else be considered enemies.

Government forces occupied strategic hills during the fighting with the Kokang rebels, state-owned Myawaddy TV station reported.

However, a spokesman for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Kokang army, said that Kokang troops pulled out from the hilltop before army soldiers attacked them.

More than 40 civilians were wounded during the fighting, local residents told Radio Free Asia (RFA).

However, it is unclear how many were killed or wounded in the remote region, inaccessible to international agencies. Humanitarian convoys have come under attack. Thousands of civilians have been displaced.

The Myanmar military on Thursday ordered the refugees to return to their homes within three days or else be considered enemies, a local Kokang resident said. However, the refugees “are frightened to return. The government army asked them to return once a few months ago and they did, but they were shot. Now they are afraid of returning.”

Government forces used armoured cars and planes in the attacks, escalating the conflict. One effect has been that “Some [civilians] joined the Kokang army when they became angry with the Myanmar army after their relatives were killed and injured,” he added.

Myanmar is home to more than 135 ethnic groups, who have always struggled to coexist peacefully, especially with the central government, which is dominated by ethnic Burmese.

In the past, when the country was run by a military junta, the authorities used an iron fist against the least amenable to central control, like ethnic Kachin in Kachin state, along the border with China in the north, and more recently with ethnic Kokang in Shan state, where the president imposed a state of emergency.

In late March, government officials and representatives of 16 armed rebel groups signed a draft agreement for a ceasefire at the Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon to end fighting in the country. If it is finalised and implemented, it could turn the page on decades of ethnic violence.

However, before true peace comes to the country, some key issues need to be solved; topping the list is a negotiated deal between the government and the Kokang minority to end the latest episode of bloodshed.

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