Clashes between ethnic Kokang rebels and Myanmar's military near the country's northeastern border with China left around 50 government troops dead over the weekend, a member of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army said Monday, though state media claimed the losses were far fewer.
Lt. Col. Ta Po Kyaw, secretary of the TNLA - which is fighting to reclaim the special region of Kokang in Shan state alongside the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) - told RFA's Myanmar Service his group had confronted army troops from four different divisions in Nanhkan and Hseni townships in recent days.
"We assume that a total of 50 soldiers from the government army were killed within these two to three days, although we can't give an exact number," he said.
Ta Po Kyaw did not provide a number for casualties suffered by ethnic rebels over the weekend.
The MNDAA under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng (also known as Phone Kya Shin) are trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which it had controlled until 2009, forcing a wave of refugees away from the remote and rugged conflict zone and across the border into China.
The MNDAA has been joined by three other ethnic minority armies: the TNLA, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and part of the Shan State Army (SSA).
A report by the official Global New Light of Myanmar said government ground troops launched attacks in tandem with air strikes against Kokang rebels on Saturday and Sunday, capturing temporary bases and strategic emplacements that had been used to cut off main access roads to the area.
It said five engagements had broken out in the two days, killing four army members and wounding 21, including officers, who are now receiving medical treatment at military hospitals. The army seized three bodies of rebel fighters, as well as small arms, ammunition and narcotics, the report said.
Additionally, a reporter and three civilians were wounded following an attack by rebels on a Red Cross truck traveling to Kunlong township from the capital of the Kokang special region Laukkai on Saturday evening, the Global New Light reported. Rebels have denied involvement in the attack.
Red Cross attack
A worker named U Tar from the Kunlong township Red Cross told RFA Monday that because of the attack, as well as a similar attack on another convoy last week which left two aid workers injured, the Red Cross was temporarily suspending missions to assist refugees displaced by the clashes.
"Because the Red Cross trucks were attacked, Red Cross members and volunteers are afraid to go to this area to help victims," he said.
According to the office of the president, since fighting broke out on Feb. 9, 72 ethnic rebels have been killed, while seven officers and 47 lower-ranking soldiers from Myanmar's military have died. A government police officer and seven other policemen were also killed in the fighting, it said.
MNDAA spokesman Tun Myat Lin told RFA that the government had recently stepped up attacks on the rebel groups as part of a bid to "distract the public" amid growing student and worker strikes in the country.
He said the government was also using tactics to try to control media coverage of the fighting and present a more favorable view of the military.
"A military general said [the MNDAA] is an unlawful association in a press conference held a few days ago and he also said reporters could be charged under the Unlawful Association Act … if they contact us to cover news about the fighting," Tun Myat Lin said.
"This is like a threat to the media and an assassination [against our character] by manipulating the media."
Call for peace
Meanwhile, the TNLA on Monday called for peace and urged the government to sit down to talks in a statement sent to the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) bloc of 12 ethnic armed groups, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents more than a dozen rebel groups, and the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC).
Cap. Ta Ike Kyaw of the TNLA told RFA that the government and ethnic rebels must work out their differences through dialogue rather than warfare.
"We have had many clashes these days, but the civil war between the government army and ethnic armed groups is a problem that cannot be solved by fighting - it must be solved through talking and discussions," he said.
But he reserved the TNLA's right to act in self-defense, saying that if government troops attack, "we will fight back against them to protect ourselves."
A response to Monday's statement from the government was not immediately available.
Myanmar's government is currently in discussions with 16 ethnic armed groups aimed at signing a nationwide ceasefire, but ongoing clashes between rebels and the military have hampered the process.
The Mizzima news agency quoted MNDAA spokesman Tun Myat Lin calling on the government to "engage in dialogue" as soon as possible, and refuting claims that his group had received any help from China during the recent fighting.
"We always want to engage in dialogue. With this issue, we did not get any help from the Chinese central government or the Chinese provincial government. Our troops cannot enter into China," Tun Myat Lin said Sunday.
Some military officials have suggested the Kokang rebels have been receiving assistance from the Chinese government because many members of their ethnic group live in China and Peng Jiasheng has lived in exile across the border for five years.
However Minister Aung Min, who leads the government's Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC), told RFA last week that it is "impossible that China is involved in this fighting."
"As China is a big country, it will follow international rules. It doesn't need to be involved in this fighting," he said. "But Kokang people who live in China might be involved in the fighting, as Phone Kya Shin is a Kokang."
Last week, Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin told RFA that recent fighting in Kokang could "damage Myanmar's democratic reform and peacemaking process."
"As the nation has grown increasingly unstable [due to the fighting], the general election [set for later this year] could be thrown into chaos," he said.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine, Wai Mar Tun, Pyone Moh Moh Zin and Myo Thant Khine for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Asia