Myanmar Refugees Flee To China To Escape Clashes

The number of refugees crossing into China to escape fighting in Myanmar has slowed. Some 30,000 refugees fled to China while government forces in Myanmar fought rebel militias.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

China may be one of the few friends the military junta in Myanmar has, but Myanmar's big neighbor wasn't happy when some 30,000 refugees fled across the border into China as Myanmar fought rebel militias. Many of those driven out of the country are ethnically Chinese, and China wants the fighting to stop.

NPR's South East Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan has been monitoring the clashes, and joins us now. And Michael, what more can you tell us about what happened? I mean, it - wouldn't have even thought Myanmar had to worry about clashing with rebels since it's such a tightly controlled, military-run country.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Well, parts of the country are very tightly controlled, but others are not under the control of the central government at all. And the region we're talking about is one of several parts that's under control of local ethnic groups and their militias, not the central government.

The people who run things, mainly ethnic Chinese, like you said. They've gotten used to running things. They were collecting taxes, pretty much functioning as a de facto government. They were apparently caught off guard by this military offensive, but they shouldn't have been. The government's been talking about doing this for several months now.

MONTAGNE: Why did China react so strongly? They're pretty careful about defending Myanmar against its many people who criticize it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, well, I think there's a couple of reasons. One, no country likes instability on its borders, right? And Myanmar does have these many ethnic groups along its borders fighting against the central government. And this is also bad timing for the Chinese in particular, when they're already worried as they prepare to celebrate 60 years of communist rule in October. I mean, China's already got its own internal problems with ethnic minorities with the Uighurs in Western China, with the Tibetans. They don't need any more.

MONTAGNE: And the fighting, it's subsided. Is that for the moment, or is this the beginning of more things to come?

SULLIVAN: I think it's probably over for now. I mean, I think the rebels weren't anticipating such a large and well-executed attack, and it seems to have broken their backs, at least for now. Reports from the region say the soldiers have been handing in their weapons and their uniforms at the border before crossing into China.

Whether there are enough of the rebels left inside to regroup is one question. Whether they'll be allowed to regroup on the Chinese side, I think, is pretty doubtful, though. I think China has reportedly provided some support for these rebels in the past, but not recently.

MONTAGNE: And Michael, you mentioned that the Myanmar government had been threatening to crack down, but why now? What prompted this attack by the military?

SULLIVAN: Because the generals are very, very interested in stability, and they want to do everything they can to ensure stability in the run up to this general election that they're supposed to have next year. So they got rid of Aung San Suu Kyi in this dubious verdict in her trial last month, and now they're going after these ethnic groups. And, in fact, they've been going after these groups for a couple of months now.

I mean, in June, it was the ethnic Karen along the border with Thailand. They've been fighting against the military for decades now. And there's some talk that they'll start on another ethnic group, the Wa, and some of the others in the next couple of weeks, too. And if this happens, some of these groups that I'm talking about - a possible alliance against Myanmar's military should that happen.

And that, of course, could get very nasty, in particular for civilians, right, because they get caught in the middle of this. And then there's the possibility of more refugees like those we saw this weekend not just going into China, but going into neighboring Thailand, going into Laos, too. So that could be a very big problem. You could have tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of refugees going over the borders.

MONTAGNE: Which obviously would be a big problem for the whole region.

SULLIVAN: It'd be potentially a problem for China. It'd be potentially a problem for Thailand, which already has hundreds of thousands of refugees either in camps or living illegally in Thailand. It could be a huge problem for the region.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan speaking to us from his base in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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