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Burma (Myanmar) border conflict threatens to complicate ties with China

Analysts say China is caught between its need to secure energy supplies from Burma (Myanmar) and its fears of escalating conflict on its borders.

By Correspondent / June 21, 2011

Ethnic Kachin refugees travel on vehicles with their belongings as they flee fighting near Myanmar's border with China, according to the U.S. Campaign for Burma, in this undated photo provided by the group on June 16, 2011.

U.S. Campaign for Burma/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

Deadly clashes between Burmese troops and ethnic rebels at a Chinese-run hydropower dam for nearly two weeks shine a spotlight on China’s growing energy interests in Burma’s strife-torn borderlands. (See map here)

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Beijing has called for a peaceful end to the fighting in Burma's northern Kachin state (see map here), where Chinese power companies are building a series of dams to supply electricity to southern China. The latest fighting erupted on June 9, when Burmese forces tried to secure a Chinese dam that is already in operation and has since been forced to shut down. Thousands of civilians have fled the area, and some have crossed into China, according to exiled Burmese media and Western diplomats in Bangkok.

Analysts say China is caught between its need to secure energy supplies from Burma (Myanmar) and its fears of escalating conflict on its borders.

The conflict represents a challenge for Burma’s semicivilian government that took power in April following a controversial election last November that sidelined many opposition voices. The ethnic minority Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is among several armed groups in Burma that have refused to convert into government border guards, to the frustration of Burma’s powerful military. Its political wing, the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO), signed a cease-fire in 1994 but was unable to field candidates in last year’s election.

What do Burmese troops really want?

Lahpai Naw Din, an exile who runs the Kachin News Group in Thailand, said the dam was a smokescreen for Burmese troops to overrun KIA positions. “It’s just a trick. In a short time they want to invade and control the dam area,” he says.

The hydropower plants lie on a tributary of the Irrawaddy River that flows the length of Burma and empties into the Indian Ocean. In March, the KIO sent a formal letter to the Chinese government to register its objections to dams under construction on the upper reaches of the river and cited the risk of conflict if Burmese troops attempt to drive the KIA from its bases.

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