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The bitter conflict engulfing Kachin state has escalated in the last two days, with claims from the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) that on Wednesday alone it clashed on 12 separate occasions with Burmese forces.
Various reports also claim that China has sent up to 2,000 troops along its side of the volatile border. La Nan, spokesperson of the KIA, said that the deployment was likely “to prevent the fights from spilling into their country”. China is also known to be wary of a flood of refugees crossing the border to escape the escalated conflict.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting; of this number, only around 5,000 are being given assistance by government-approved aid agencies.
A Burmese assault on a KIA outpost near the China-backed Taping dam project in southern Kachin state in June broke a 17-year ceasefire between the two sides. Burmese troops have since made slow but steady progress as they head towards the KIA’s headquarters in Laiza, southwest of the state capital, Myitkyina.
La Nan said that troops were approaching Laiza and were waging offensives around Waingmaw township, as well as using the road from Bhamo to send reinforcements to the region.
“Fighting near to the border with China is becoming more and more intense – [on Wednesday] alone we had 12 clashes with the Burmese army, and we assume that China is sending its troops to the border to prevent the fights from spilling into their country,” said the La Nan from the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
Aid workers in the region corroborated that fighting had escalated, and warned that the upsurge of violence this week had added complications for aid distribution, with outcomes hard to discern at this juncture.
Fighting was seemingly concentrated around the key Highway 31, which runs parallel to the Irrawaddy River to the west and with the Chinese border to the east. This road connects the two key bridgeheads of the river at Bhamo and Myitkyina.
The KIO believe that Burmese forces based in Myitkina were massing on the east side of the river with a view to moving towards Laiza to the southeast, meaning that control of Highway 31 is vital.
Roads running from Highway 31 to the east meanwhile were also subject to ambush and fighting as the Burmese seek to penetrate and clear the KIA-patrolled areas east of the Irrawaddy, in townships such as Momauk, east of Bhamo. The manoeuvring has left civilians trapped.
“Civilians including students are stranded [in Lawtdan] as the route [to Bhamo] has been blocked due to fighting down the road,” said a resident of the nearby town of Lweje. “They are also unable to go back to Lweje as the [Burmese] army checkpoint in Singlun [village] is not letting them pass. The fighting is taking place in Kyauksakan.”
The Lweje road is a key trading route to the Chinese border, but residents said fighting had made the road impassable to most vehicles.
“There are KIA units in the village and they worried that civilians will get caught in artillery fire. The [Burmese army] has been firing all night from Kyauksakan and we don’t know how many civilians have been killed. We also heard that a 17-year old Shan boy went down the road and was shot dead in Kyauksakan. They are in deep trouble once they start firing artillery,” added the Lweje resident.
Burmese forces have been accused by Human Rights Watch of abuse against civilians that clearly violate the laws of war, such as use of forced labour and killings. “The laws of war prohibit the use of uncompensated or abusive forced labour, including work in combat areas,” the group said in a statement.
Reinforcements are being sent by the Burmese army “to Myitkyina as well as Bhamo from lower Burma regions via the Irrawaddy River,” La Nan said.
Artillery is a decisive apparel that the Burmese have over their adversaries, with their arsenal including hardware bought from Serbia, Israel, China and allegedly India. The Serbian Nora 155mm self-propelled howitzer, which is believed to be in the Burmese arsenal, has a range of some 45 kilometres, enabling the Burmese to strike much of Momauk township from the safety of Bhamo.
Much of the effort to supply Burmese troops is made via the Irrawaddy river. Naw Ming, from the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, confirmed that two Burmese supply boats had been ambushed on the river on Monday, both of which were allegedly sunk.