BANGKOK, June 20 (Reuters) - Myanmar government troops and ethnic Kachin separatists fought on Monday following the collapse of talks aimed at ending a conflict that is threatening China’s energy interests in the remote area.
Low-level clashes since June 9 in Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin state has disrupted operations of two Chinese-built hydropower plants and sent thousands of ethnic Kachin people fleeing into makeshift camps.
Burmese exiles said the fighting was ongoing and sources on the ground were unable to determine the number of casualties from battles between Kachin guerillas and light infantry units of Myanmar’s “Tatmadaw” army.
More than 200 Chinese workers have returned home after one hydropower plant with four 60-MHz generators was shut on June 14.
In its first comments on the unrest, Myanmar’s state media said on Saturday the military had no choice but to respond with force after the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) ignored its warning to move fighters away from the Taping Hydropower Project.
It said the KIA had destroyed 25 bridges and had repeatedly launched “heavy weapons fire” at the project. The shutdown of the plant had caused “great loss to the state and the people”.
The risk of the unrest spreading in the heavily militarised border region is a particular worry for China, which is building oil and gas pipelines that will span its Southeast Asian neighbour to improve energy security. China has called for peaceful negotiations.
Exiled Burmese news sources based in Thailand said the regional commander of Myanmar’s military had held talks on Friday and Saturday at the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the rebels’ political arm.
“But this seems to have failed because the government sent no message and did not sanction these talks,” said Lahpai Naw Din, head of the Thai-based Kachin News Group.
“The talks took place as the army continued to send in reinforcements, so there’s not much trust there.”
The KIA battled the central government for decades but agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 that permitted a degree of self-rule, albeit unofficially.
However, the government’s refusal to register a Kachin political party for last year’s parliamentary election -- due to its refusal to disarm -- has angered the Kachin.
Myanmar’s 11-week old government, its first civilian-led administration in five decades, is intent on seizing control of the rebellious states along its borders with Thailand and China but is aware conflict could easily spill into other areas and spark an aggressive response from other ethnic militias.
Analysts say the government is under pressure from China, its biggest economic ally, to secure the two hydroelectric plants on the Taping River owned by Datang Corporation, a Chinese state company, which says 90 percent of the power generated will flow into China’s power grid.
Chinese-built energy projects are a highly contentious issue for ethnic minorities in Myanmar, which see their construction as an incursion by an aggressive military that is reaping financial benefits from their resources.
Aung Zaw, editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, said it was in China’s interest for government troops to prevail, despite its official calls for calm.
“It looks as if China is taking sides with the Burmese government. As long as the military says these offensives are to secure the energy projects with as little damage as possible, then it will have China’s support,” he said.
“It’s no real surprise this is happening. The Kachin have been cut out politically with last year’s election and economically with these dams. They have a lot to fight for.” (Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Editing by Alex Richardson)