Thousands of refugees from Myanmar have poured across the border into China in recent weeks amid troubling signs that a 20-year cease-fire between ethnic minorities and Myanmar's military rulers might be unraveling.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said as many as 30,000 people had fled fighting in Myanmar; sources on the Chinese side of the border put the figure at 5,000 to 10,000.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu in a statement Friday urged the Myanmar government to "safeguard the regional stability of its bordering area with China."
A Chinese intelligence officer in Nansan, a border town, said the Chinese government was arranging emergency housing for refugees in an attempt to restore stability.
The Chinese are in an awkward position; on one hand, China is the only real ally of the authoritarian regime in the country also known as Burma. But many of the rebels are ethnic Chinese who had been living more or less autonomously in what is called the Kokang region. That autonomy has been threatened recently by the military regime's plans to dissolve the ethnic militia by incorporating their fighters into a national border police.
"We are just like our own small kingdom on the Burmese border. . . . That is what we are trying to defend," said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former rebel who lives in exile in Ruili on the Chinese side of the border.
Low-level skirmishes between about 7,000 Myanmar soldiers and about 1,500 militia members have been going on since early August, said Aung Kyaw Zaw. He estimated that 30 people had been killed and 40 more were missing.
But there is a danger that the conflict will spread into civil war if larger, better-armed militias join forces with those in Kokang in resisting the regime. Scattered throughout northern Myanmar are dozens of ethnic pockets, whose militias are under similar orders to disband in keeping with a new constitution and plans for elections in 2010, which exiles say will consolidate the government's power.
"Burma's regime is going to crush all ethnic minorities who do not submit to their rule, and civilians are going to pay a very heavy price," Aung Din, executive director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, said in a statement Friday. "This is the largest refugee flow from Burma in years."
Exile groups said Friday that they were getting reports that the United Wa State Army, a larger militia commanding about 20,000 men, was now fighting against the army.
"If the Wa are really joining in, this could develop into a full-blown conflict," said Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile who writes for Irrawaddy, a news service and magazine in Thailand.
An uneasy peace has prevailed since 1989, when the military regime started signing cease-fire agreements with various ethnic militias along the border.
China has a special fascination with the Kokang because its population includes descendants of loyalists to the Ming emperors who fled westward after the dynasty's collapse in 1644.
Although it is a remote mountainous area, lucrative routes crisscross the border. Electronics, mobile telephones, shoes and clothing made in China flow into Myanmar, and traders bring out jade and timber, and sometimes heroin. More recently, Chinese corporations have focused on the border as they try to seek oil and gas deals with Myanmar.
The refugees coming out the last few days have appeared to be well-dressed and well-off enough to be carrying large suitcases of their possessions.
"Most of them are Chinese people who had been doing business in Burma," said a woman who gave her name as Sun at the Hongping Hotel in Nansan, where the Chinese Ministry of Public Security is putting up about 40 refugees.
She said that as of Friday, there was no indication that the situation was calming down. "There are still people coming in from Burma every day," she said.
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.