Myanmar military says lost control of strategic border town
November 2, 2023 06:14 PM
Myanmar's military has lost control of a strategic town on the Chinese border following days of clashes with ethnic armed groups, in what analysts say is the biggest military challenge it has faced since seizing power.
Fighting has raged since Friday across northern Shan state, with an alliance of ethnic groups claiming to have seized four towns, blocked trade routes to China and captured dozens of military outposts.
The remoteness of the rugged, jungle-clad region -- home to pipelines that supply oil and gas to China -- and patchy communications make it difficult to verify casualty numbers in the fighting, which the United Nations fears has displaced thousands.
Government, administrative organisations and security forces were "no longer present" in the trade hub of Chinshwehaw, which borders China's Yunnan province, junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said in a statement late Wednesday.
More than a quarter of Myanmar's $1.8 billion border trade with China passed through Chinshwehaw between April and September, junta-controlled media reported in September, citing the commerce ministry.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) said on Thursday they also had control over the towns of Hpaung Seng, Hsenwi, and Kyukok.
Clashes were ongoing in Kunlong and Hsenwi, the statement said, without giving details on casualties.
China called on Thursday for an "immediate" ceasefire in northern Shan state -- home to a planned billion-dollar rail link in its Belt and Road infrastructure project.
A resident of Hsenwi, around 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Chinshwehaw, told AFP on Thursday that some junta troops remained in the town.
Internet access was patchy and thousands of people had arrived in the town seeking safety, the resident said, asking for anonymity for security reasons.
The price of rice and some commodities brought in from southern Myanmar had more than doubled at some shops in Muse, a trade hub north of Hsenwi on the China border, a resident in Muse told AFP.
There was no fighting in or around the town, they said, also asking to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Clashes have taken place at 10 locations across Shan state over the past six days, the junta spokesman said, without giving details on casualties.
He accused the three armed groups of "blowing up power stations, blowing up bridges, destroying transportation routes", without providing details.
"The military hasn't faced this level of lightning offensive since the coup," independent analyst David Mathieson told AFP.
"It was a stunning military and intelligence failure that illustrates how stretched the Myanmar army really is."
Myanmar's borderlands are home to more than a dozen ethnic armed groups, some of which have fought the military for decades over autonomy and control of lucrative resources.
Some have trained and equipped newer "People's Defence Forces" that have sprung up since the 2021 coup and the military's bloody crackdown on dissent.
The three armed groups say the military has suffered dozens killed, wounded and captured since Friday.
Analysts say both sides likely inflate or deflate casualty figures.
The United Nations says it fears thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting, with some fleeing across the border into China.
On Tuesday, China's minister for public security met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyidaw, Myanmar state media said, for a second day of talks with top junta officials about the clashes.
China is a top ally and major arms supplier of the junta, and has refused to label its 2021 power grab a coup.
Beijing maintains ties with some ethnic armed groups along its border with Myanmar, home to ethnic Chinese communities who use Chinese SIM cards and currency.
It has previously denied reports it has supplied the armed groups with weapons.