Hostilities have been escalating in Burma’s northern Kachin State since early this week with community-based organizations saying that at least 90,000 civilians have been displaced so far.
Local groups released a joint statement on Wednesday that called on the Burmese government to end its offensives against the ethnic rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
KIO sources told The Irrawaddy that fighting has escalated since Monday, especially around the Hpakant jade mining region and the rebel’s Laiza headquarters where thousands of Kachin refugees are currently taking shelter.
Tu Ja, a pastor at a local Baptist church in Hpakant Town, said that a heavy explosion went off in the nearby Shrawng Kha area at around 5:30 pm on Wednesday evening. Government and KIO troops exchanged fire and a mortar shell landed on a store which stored explosive materials and fuel.
“The explosion was very powerful. Even though it was around three miles away, some houses in western Hpakant Town were shaking. It was like an earthquake,” said local resident Tachi Hla Sai who is also a member of the main opposition National League for Democracy.
He added that even more locals have been fleeing their homes this week and the population of displaced people in Hpakant Town has now reached 8,000. Farmers from 23 villages in Hpakant Township have fled the fighting since Aug. 18 while others are heading to the Kachin state capital Myitkyina to seek refuge, said Tachi Hla Sai.
The joint statement said that around 80 battalions of Burmese government troops separately launched attacks against the KIO and local people in Kachin and northern Shan state. The Kachin organizations also called on President Thein Sein’s government to end military offensives and take action against those forces that do not obey direct orders to cease hostilities.
The government must withdraw all its troops from KIO-controlled regions as the escalating conflict risked damaging the peace process with other ethnic armed groups as well as with the KIO, said the statement.
Peace talks between the government and KIO leadership are currently on hold as the government’s negotiation team still has not responded to an invitation for further discussions, claim the rebels.
The community-based organizations also condemned China for forcing refugees to return home despite the worsening situation in Kachin State. More than 2,000 Kachin civilians who sought refuge in China’s Yunnan Province have been sent back over the border since mid-August due to pressure by the Chinese authorities, claim aid workers.
One source with the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the Burmese people currently living on the Chinese side of the border are visiting friends and relatives.
The official denied media reports that China was forcing Kachin refugees to return home against their will and denied such a policy was in place.
“During the day, they return to Burma to work and in the evenings they rest with their relatives on the Chinese side of the border. Once the situation improves, they will be able to return to their homes in Kachin State,” said the official.