MAE SOT, Thailand -- On June 9, deadly clashes broke out in northern Myanmar between the country's army and the ethnic minority Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The fighting reportedly erupted after Myanmar's military moved to secure the Tarpein Hydropower Project, a Chinese-built dam that came online in January. The plant, which sits on a tributary of the Irrawaddy River close to rebel-held areas, has since suspended its operations, and the clashes have spread to surrounding regions, pushing Myanmar's strategic borderlands to the brink of civil war.
Rights activists say the Myanmar army's offensive has brought a range of rights abuses, from the press-ganging of civilians into work as military porters to the abuse of women and young girls. More than 10,000 civilians have since sought refuge along the Myanmar-China border as leaders from both sides begin tentative cease-fire talks.
The current skirmish is the latest in a string of clashes along Myanmar's troubled periphery, all linked to a junta plan to incorporate ethnic groups that had signed cease-fire agreements into a unified Border Guard Force (BGF) ahead of last November's election. In August 2009, tensions over the BGF plan also exploded into open clashes in the Kokang Special Region of Shan state, sending 30,000 refugees fleeing over the Chinese border and greatly riling China's leadership. Since the election, fighting has also erupted across Karen state to the south and in other parts of Shan state.