Burma’s president declares a state of emergency in the Kokang region and imposes a three-month period of martial law, hours after a Red Cross convoy comes under attack.
Despite democratic elections and preliminary peace deals with many ethnic groups in Burma, reports of bitter fighting and mass casualties in the country’s isolated north-east have cast another cloud over this troubled nation’s future.
Above: Red Cross convoy under attack in Burma
Fighting between Burma’s army and ethnic rebels from the little-known Kokang region of Shan State erupted nine days ago when ethnic fighters – dubbed “the renegades” by the government – made a “well organized” attempt to take the main city of Laukkai, just a few miles from the Chinese border.
The rebels were beaten back by Burmese troops, but the fighting has spread to different areas and dozens of combatants have lost their lives.
Last night, the Burmese president Thein Sein declared martial law, saying he was not prepared to lose an “inch of Myanmar’s territory.” It gives the military in Myanmar (as Burma is officially known) unprecedented powers to deal with the trouble.
There is plenty of trouble to deal with.
At least 30,000 people have fled over the border into nearby China and on Tuesday, unknown attackers shot and wounded people travelling in a Red Cross convoy of eight vehicles.
“We haven’t had such an attack before,” said a spokesperson for the humanitarian organisation. “This would be the very first.”
The government blamed the attack firmly on the rebels, who call themselves the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
But that was denied by their general secretary, Htun Myat Lin, who spoke to Channel 4 News.
“The convoy was passing through territory held by the Burmese,” he said. “It couldn’t have been us.” Mr Htun argued that the Kokang, who are ethnic Han Chinese, are fighting for political autonomy – as well as, “the right not to be killed by the Burmese army.”
The MNDAA are led by an 85-year-old called Peng Jiasheng.
A colourful character, he’s a former communist commander who is also credited with setting up the first heroin production factory in Kokang. The Burmese military threw him out and clamped down on his drugs business in 2009.
Nonetheless, he remains a powerful figure, at least in the region itself.
Analysts say he has skilfully appealed for support from the Chinese public by referring to the struggle of the “Chinese Kokang people” and accusing the Burma’s army of serving “American interests” to drum up even more support.
The Chinese authorities are a different story: government officials do not want to risk jeopardising significant business interests in Burma – and officials have already complained about the fact that thousands of refugees are tramping over the Chinese border.
A spokeswoman from the foreign ministry said China was, “calling on all sides… to ensure peace and stability of the border, and especially to avoid affecting security on the Chinese side.”
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Additional reporting by Aung Zaw Min