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Myanmar rebels seize vital border town as China calls for ceasefire

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Myanmar’s military government says it has lost control of an important town on the border with China after days of fierce fighting with armed groups.

The loss is a major blow to the generals who seized power from Myanmar’s elected government in February 2021 and have since struggled to contain opposition to their rule.

“Government, administrative organisations and security organisations are no longer present” in Chinshwehaw, government spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Wednesday.

The town, bordering China’s Yunnan province, is central to the flow of trade from Myanmar to China. More than a quarter of Myanmar’s $1.8bn border trade with China passed through Chinshwehaw from April to September, state media reported in September, citing the Ministry of Commerce.

Map of Chinshewehaw, in northern Myanmar.

Fierce fighting

The development follows days of fighting throughout Myanmar’s northern Shan state between the army and a coalition of three ethnic rebel groups known as the Brotherhood Alliance – the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

The groups, which are believed to have 15,000 fighters, have regularly battled with Myanmar’s military over demands for autonomy and resources.

In recent days, they said they have taken over several military posts and key roads linking Myanmar with China. The MNDAA on Monday also released videos that it said showed its members in Chinshwehaw.

This handout photo taken and released on October 27, 2023 by the Kokang Information Network shows Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) Major General Peng Deqi (centre R) commanding operations against Myanmar's military near Lashio township in Myanmar’s northern Shan State. (Photo by Handout / Kokang Information Network / AFP) / -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / KOKANG INFORMATION NETWORK " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Kokang Information Network " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS /
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army’s Peng Deqi, centre right, commands operations against Myanmar’s military near Lashio in Shan state (Kokang Information Network/Handout via AFP)

Zaw Min Tun confirmed fighting broke out at 10 locations across Shan state in the past week and accused the three armed groups of “blowing up power stations, blowing up bridges, destroying transportation routes”.

The rebels said they have killed and wounded dozens of soldiers, but the military government did not provide any casualty figures.

Analysts said both sides likely exaggerate enemy casualties and report lower losses for their own side.

Thousands displaced

A resident of Hsenwi, about 90km (55 miles) west of Chinshwehaw, told the Agence France-Presse news agency on Thursday that they could hear fighting going on outside the town, where thousands of people have sought refuge.

The United Nations said it fears thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting with some fleeing across the border into China, which on Thursday called for an immediate ceasefire.

Beijing “urges all parties to immediately cease fire and stop fighting”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular news briefing, urging the warring parties to resolve their “differences through peaceful means using dialogue and consultation”.

China is a key ally and major weapons supplier to Myanmar’s military government, whose power grab nearly three years ago it has not called a coup.

On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s army removed the de facto head of the government, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other democratically elected leaders and took power.

The coup plunged Myanmar into crisis after the generals responded to mass protests against their power grab with brutal force, and opponents joined forces with fighters from long-established armed ethnic groups in a bid to restore civilian rule.

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