China tells Myanmar to deal with conflict

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More than 10,000 refugees have fled across the border from Myanmar into China amidst fighting between the Burmese military and a Chinese ethnic group. China is telling the Myanmar's military government to deal with conflict and stabilize the border region. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. China and the military government of Myanmar are usually on good terms. But right now things are a little tense between them. More than 10,000 refugees have spilled over the border from Myanmar to China this month. Their fleeing clashes between the Burmese army and an armed ethnic militia. China is calling on the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to deal with the issue. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Beijing.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: This appears to be the biggest exodus of refugees from Myanmar in a decade ? at least 10,000 Chinese officials say and perhaps as many as 30,000 according to the UN high commissioner for refugees. The refugees are from the Kokang area of Myanmar which heavily ethnic Chinese. Chinese traders had done a brisk business there until this month when long dormant tensions flared between the Kokang militia and the Burmese army. Many merchants like this one feared civil war was coming so they packed up and moved out.

TRANSLATOR: We are very upset. Chinese people have lots of property over there but we obviously couldn't bring it with us when we fled. And the Kokang people can't go back to their homes now.

MAGISTAD: The Kokang are one of many ethnic minorities in Myanmar that have long held effective control over the area where they live. For decades they battled the Burmese government and even the British colonial rulers before them for the right to keep that autonomy. Twenty years ago the Kokang and the Burmese military government signed a cease fire and it held until now. Jeremy Woodrum, the director of the US Campaign for Burma, explains that the turning point was Myanmar's passage last year of a new constitution.

JEREMY WOODRUM: Which says that there can be no one under arms in Burma unless they're a part of the Tatmadaw, the national military, and they want to clean up all what's in their view insurgencies by the elections they have scheduled for 2010. So I mean there's millions of people who live in these areas so this is going to be widespread suffering.

MAGISTAD: Already the Burmese army has launched an offensive on the Thai border driving ethnic Karen refugees into Thailand. Further attacks are expected against other ethnic minorities. China has historically supported some of these groups although some have been known to traffic in opium and heroin. Aung Zaw is the editor of Irrawaddy Magazine in Thailand which reports on Burma. He says Myanmar's leaders may have calculated that with these groups history of drug trafficking the United States won't try to interfere in the Burmese army's mopping up expedition.

AUNG ZAW: Because all these leaders used to be notorious drug lords so it's easy to justify for the Burmese military leaders to say that we're going after them because they're drug lords and they've been wanted by the US Justice Department. But the problem is if the Burmese military started to take very forceful measure against the civilian population there and if there's a large scale fight breakout that would be a big problem for everyone.

MAGISTAD: At least some fighting has broken out with unconfirmed reports of deaths on both sides. Refugees continue to stream across the border into China's Yunnan province. It's government issued a statement today saying it has setup camps in seven locations and is feeding, clothing, and providing medical care to the refugees. But when it comes to what happens next Jeremy Woodrum of the US Campaign for Burma says China's goals may be complicated.

WOODRUM: They've said publicly that they'd like to see this not proceed in terms of an armed conflict. But it's also really important to recognize that the area where many of ethnic minorities live is an area where an important oil pipeline is going to come through Burma to China that will help Chinese boats essentially not have to sail through the Malacca Straits. Basically they're going to pipe their Middle East oil across Burma into China and these are the areas which this conflict are taking place.

LYNCH: China's not saying anything about who should control the territory ? its ally, the Myanmar government, or its other long-term allies, the ethnic minorities. It does see as essential as secure supply of oil. And for now, as so many other times in China's relations with Myanmar and its ethnic groups China seems to be keeping all its options open. For The World I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.