By Michael Martina
BEIJING - MYANMAR's military has clashed for several days with a militia controlled by the country's ethnic Kachin minority in a remote but strategic region where China is building hydropower plants, various sources said on Tuesday.
The fighting, which began last Thursday, has killed at least four people and forced hundreds, if not thousands, to flee toward the Myanmar-China border, the sources, including a Washington-based advocacy group and Chinese media, said.
More than 2,000 villagers from the conflict area had fled toward China, and 28 Chinese engineers and dam workers were being held by government forces, the U.S. Campaign for Burma said in a statement.
Ethnic rebel armies, like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have fought Myanmar's military for decades to defend their territory, and the clashes mark one of the most serious upticks in hostilities since the government held rare but tightly controlled elections late last year.
Those elections were widely condemned abroad and by ethnic groups within the former British colony, also known as Burma, which see no interest in giving up control of their land for what they believe are hollow promises of self-government and political representation.
An observer based in Kachin State capital Myitkyina confirmed that battles broke out between KIA and Myanmar troops on June 9 in Momauk Township, about 130 km (80 miles) southeast of Myitkyina and about 40 km from the Chinese border.
"It's said that the battles are still going on but we have no idea about the casualties," a source who asked for anonymity told Reuters.
"We don't think the government wants to launch a major offensive against the KIA headquarters at the moment. So far as we heard they just want to drive the KIA away from the Taping hydropower project being developed in cooperation with China,"the source said.
Chinese-built dams have been divisive projects, experts say, with ethnic minorities seeing the construction as expanding military rule into their territory.