NANSAN, China – Myanmar refugees were heading home from China on Monday following the end of fighting between government troops and an ethnic militia, but some experts said the unrest could affect Beijing’s relations with Myanmar.
The initial flight across the border showed how Myanmar’s junta can sow instability that spills into China, prompting a rare request from Beijing at the end of last week that the generals stabilize the situation and protect the interests of Chinese nationals inside the country.
While fighting ended soon after with a quick defeat for the rebels, Myanmar’s decision to launch the attack so near the Chinese border was seen as a snub to Beijing by some analysts.
“The Chinese have learned that the Burmese regime are not as compliant as they assumed,” said Monique Skidmore, an expert on Myanmar at Australia’s University of Canberra. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
More than 30,000 civilian refugees had streamed into China to escape the fighting, which broke out last week after hundreds of Myanmar soldiers moved into Kokang, an ethnically Chinese region in northeastern Myanmar that borders China’s Yunnan province.
Myanmar is trying to consolidate control over several armed ethnic groups along its borders to ensure smooth conditions for next year’s national elections, the first in nearly 20 years.
The area is on the fringe of the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, and much of the heroin and amphetamines produced there is smuggled into China where its sale funds the ethnic militias.
China has been working closely with Myanmar to stem the drug trade and is anxious to ensure that the other symptoms of the region’s unrest – like high crime rates and casinos – stay on Myanmar’s side of the border.
On Monday, hundreds of refugees who’ve spent at least the past week in China were transported from camps to the border, where they walked through the gate, clutching bags and blankets. Yunnan provincial government spokesman Li Hui said at least 4,000 refugees had returned to Myanmar by the end of the day Monday. About 9,000 remained in seven camps set up to house them in tents and makeshift buildings. The rest are believed to be staying with friends and family, or are staying in hotels, or have left the area.
Myanmar’s junta said three days of clashes killed 26 government soldiers and at least eight rebels. It said Sunday night that the fighting had ended and “the region has now regained stability.”
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