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New Myanmar clashes turn northern town to rubble

Kyaukme, Myanmar — Residents of Kyaukme in northern Myanmar are counting their dead and picking through rubble following fresh fighting that shredded a Beijing-brokered ceasefire between the junta and an alliance of armed ethnic groups.

Last week fighters from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) took control of the town of 30,000 — on the main trade route to China — in the latest setback for the military as it battles opponents across the country.

But air and artillery strikes, as well as rocket attacks, have gutted parts of the northern Shan State town, leaving buildings without roofs or windows, and residents desperate to flee. 

Burned-out cars stood in front of one shattered four-story building, its corrugated roofing strewn about the streets.

TNLA soldiers in combat fatigues stood guard outside the police station, while others carried out patrols and checked vehicles.

Kyaukme resident Kyaw Paing told AFP his home was damaged by a huge blast after he saw a military plane fly overhead.

“Pieces of body — head, hands and legs — were scattered on my roof when the bomb hit some houses nearby,” he said.

“Seven people were killed here, and there was huge damage.

“I don’t want to live this poor, miserable life in the war… I feel so sad.”

Myriad armed groups

Myanmar’s borderlands are home to myriad armed ethnic groups who have battled the military since independence from Britain in 1948 for autonomy and control of lucrative resources.

Some have given shelter and training to opponents of the military’s 2021 coup that ousted the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and plunged the country into turmoil. 

In January, China brokered a ceasefire between the military and the “Three Brotherhood Alliance,” made up of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the TNLA.

The truce ended an offensive launched last October by the alliance that seized a swath of territory in Shan state — including lucrative trade crossings to China — dealing the biggest blow to the junta since it seized power.

Other towns along the highway that runs from China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar’s second city of Mandalay have also been rocked by the fighting.

On Thursday, TNLA fighters attacked the government military’s northeastern command, located in Lashio, around 85 kilometers from Kyaukme.

One Lashio resident who did not want to be named told AFP she heard artillery firing and airstrikes on Monday morning, but that the town had since been quiet, with some shops open.

A worker at Lashio’s bus station said there were lines of vehicles queuing to leave, but traffic was slow because of damage to the road outside the town.

Local rescue workers say dozens of civilians have been killed in the latest clashes.

AFP was unable to reach a junta spokesman for comment, but the military has said some civilians were killed in shelling by the alliance.

China diplomacy

Amid the new fighting, top general Soe Win traveled to China to discuss security cooperation in the border regions, according to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.

China is a major ally and arms supplier to the junta, but analysts say Beijing also maintains ties with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups holding territory near its border.

Ties between the junta and Beijing frayed in 2023 over the junta’s failure to crack down on online scam compounds in Myanmar’s borderlands targeting Chinese citizens.

Analysts suggest Beijing gave tacit approval to the October “Three Brotherhood” offensive, which the alliance said was launched partly to root out the scam compounds.

The threat of further military air strikes had caused many residents of Kyaukme to try to flee, although fuel is scarce and food prices are soaring.

“We don’t have extra money,” said Naung Naung, another resident.

“We have faced many difficulties — not only our family, but the whole town.                     

“All residents are very worried about how long this war will go on.”