Fighting resumed Saturday in northeastern Myanmar between government troops and an ethnic rebel militia, in instability that has led thousands of refugees to flee into nearby China.
At least one person was killed and dozens injured in a bomb blast near the border.
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said Myanmar's military regime has attacked Kokang militia members in the area along the border with China with tanks, artillery and up to 7,000 troops, prompting many to take refuge in southern China and surrender their weapons to Chinese authorities.
Reports and sources on the ground, Aung Din said, suggest that the Myanmar regime is transferring up to 3,000 more troops from other parts of the country into the northern area. The apparent objective, he and officials of other exile groups said, was to rout long-time militants before the election the regime has pledged to hold in 2010 in keeping with the new constitution outlined last year. If held, the election would be the first in Myanmar in two decades.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that up to 30,000 people have poured into the Chinese town of Nansan from the Kokang region this month. Chinese authorities are providing emergency food, shelter and medical care for the refugees, UNHCR said.
Exile groups have called for the release of political prisoners in detention, including Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, before any election. Suu Kyi, who was already under house arrest, was convicted Aug. 11 of sheltering an American visitor and sentenced to three years in prison, reduced to 18 months of continued house arrest. Political analysts said the charges were trumped up and aimed at ensuring that she remained out of circulation for the election.
Aung Din said the Kokang militia group is the smallest and most vulnerable in northern Myanmar, with about 1,000 to 1,500 members. With them out of the way, the regime would probably go after other opposition and militant groups in the area, he said.
The Myanmar military has demanded that all groups disarm by October, although a date for the election has not been announced. "The new constitution is designed to favor the military and make minorities subordinate to them," Aung Din said. "The regime is trying to force them all to disarm."
Beijing has maintained that events in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are not a threat to Chinese security. Having Kokang fighters on Chinese territory, however, along with thousands of refugees from Myanmar could test the two nations' ties. A key issue, some said, would be whether China chooses to extradite Kokang Chairman Peng Jiasheng, also known as Phon Kyar Shin, back to Myanmar.
"We don't know how this will work out and what China will do," Aung Din said. "But there is bound to be more fighting in the region."
One person was killed and several injured when a bomb exploded just across the border in China, He Yangchun, a Yunnan province Red Cross official, told the English-language China Daily. China's official New China News Agency reported that the border area remained tense Saturday, adding that "some small clashes" had taken place between the Kokang ethnic army and the Myanmar military.