BEIJING Thousands of refugees from fighting in remote northern Myanmar have flooded into makeshift tent cities erected on the other side of the long border with China, creating a humanitarian crisis and a complex diplomatic dilemma for Beijing.
Up to 10,000 refugees have fled to an area in southwestern Yunnan province, driven by fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the country's most powerful rebel groups, five aid groups told Reuters. Many of the refugees are women, children and elderly people.
Fighting erupted after a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down last June, sending ethnic Kachins fleeing to the border area.
The conflict could jeopardize the former Burma's efforts to convince the European Union and the United States to lift wide-ranging sanctions against the country, which is slowing efforts to open up and democratize after decades of army rule.
The EU and the United States have made peace deals with ethnic militias one of the pre-requisites for lifting the sanctions. Some groups have fought the government since independence from Britain in 1947.
Although the intensity of the fighting has eased, aid groups fear that more people will flee and exacerbate dire conditions. The Chinese government tolerates the camps, but does not officially recognize their existence.
"All of them don't have pure drinking water," La Rip, the coordinator of local aid group Relief Action Network for IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) and Refugees (RANIR), said by telephone from Myanmar.
"In some camps, outbreaks of dysentery are taking place. We do not have enough food items to provide for them. We have a very limited budget for them. And they do not have regular incomes, nowhere to work and nowhere to earn money."
WORRY FOR CHINA
The risk of fighting spreading across the highly militarized border region and of the arrival of new waves of refugees are particular worries for China's stability-obsessed rulers.
Although long wary of poor, unstable Myanmar, China has invested heavily in the country. It has brushed off Western sanctions to build infrastructure, hydropower dams and twin oil-and-gas pipelines to help feed southern China's growing energy needs and avoid the Malacca Strait shipping bottleneck.
Yunnan provincial authorities have told the refugees to leave, but have not threatened force or sealed the border, aid groups said.
"It poses a dilemma for the Chinese; it could cause strained relations with the Burmese government if they are seen as being supportive of the Kachin Independence Army, KIA, and by extension the refugees," Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert, said in emailed comments.
"On the other hand, they can't be too hostile to the Kachins, and the Kachin refugees, either."
China's Foreign Ministry last summer called for restraint from both sides in the conflict and said the government was providing humanitarian help, though aid groups deny this.
The Yunnan government denies the very existence of an influx of refugees -- aid agencies say the biggest camps are in the towns of Nongdao and La Ying.
"At the moment, what we know is that there is no such situation," Li Hui, director of the Yunnan information office, told Reuters. "Everything is normal on the China-Myanmar border."
Fighting has continued despite an order in December by President Thein Sein to end operations. That cast doubt on whether the former general leading the country has full control over the military.
In the past eight months, the refugee population inside China has grown dramatically, said Moon Nay Li, coordinator for the Kachin Women's Association in Thailand. She says more than 10,000 Kachin refugees are in Yunnan, most of them women.
Maersili, a local activist, said there is no longer space in the camps for refugees to sleep. Four to five families have to squeeze into a room, without sufficient bedding, he said.
International aid organizations such as U.N. agencies have not been able to provide sustained assistance, aid groups said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can only provide aid "when it's requested by the government to do so," Giuseppe de Vincentis, regional representative for China and Mongolia, said, adding that "there is not such a request."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Michael Martina and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Don Durfee and Ron Popeski)