KUNLONG, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law in a region near the Chinese border after more than 70 people were killed in fighting between the Myanmar army and a rebel group.
The conflict is a setback for Myanmar’s semi-civilian government, which took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule and is seeking to end hostilities with the many groups that have taken up arms since independence in 1948.
The clashes in the Kokang region of Shan State in Myanmar’s northeast have alarmed China, which has called for a ceasefire.
China fears a repeat of events in 2009, when tens of thousands of civilians crossed the border to escape fighting.
Thein Sein declared martial law for three months in a televised announcement late on Tuesday, the first time military rule has been invoked under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.
Fighting broke out on Feb. 9 between the Myanmar army and a force from the Chinese-speaking Kokang region called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
At least 47 Myanmar soldiers and 26 MNDAA fighters have been killed since then, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported, and thousands of civilians have fled, either to other areas in Myanmar or into China.
About 50 civilians have been killed since fighting began, said Haw Shau Chen, a member of parliament from the area.
On Tuesday, two volunteers were injured when a Myanmar Red Cross convoy came under fire in an unprecedented attack. The eight vehicles were carrying about 300 people fleeing the fighting.
A Reuters witness in the convoy said the vehicles stopped after hearing gunfire. The convoy waited an hour before getting an all-clear to proceed from authorities but came under fire shortly afterwards.
Some in the vehicles took shelter in a ditch. Others crouched in their vehicles during a few minutes of gunfire.
The Red Cross said it was not clear who fired on the convoy, but there were no Myanmar army units nearby at the time. A government soldier said the MNDAA carried out the attack. Reuters was unable to contact the MNDAA for comment.
Separately, the Red Cross said a woman was killed and her husband wounded when their vehicle was fired on as they fled the fighting.
Many of those fleeing deeper into Myanmar were migrant sugarcane plantation workers. Many ethnic Chinese people from Kokang fled into China.
The United States, which has supported reforms in Myanmar and efforts to bring about peace between the government and insurgents, said it was “deeply concerned”.
“We appeal to all sides to exercise restraint and return to dialogue,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “Fighting will undermine the ongoing national reconciliation process.”
The United States also urged authorities to permit immediate and unfettered access by humanitarian workers.
The MNDAA was formerly part of the Communist Party of Burma, a powerful Chinese-backed guerrilla force that battled the Myanmar government before splintering in 1989.
Clashes often flare up Shan state, an area notorious for the production of opium and amphetamines, as well as the illegal trade in timber and wildlife into China. Various rebel groups operate there.
Members of two other rebel groups, the Arakan Army and the Ta‘ang National Liberation Army, have joined the MNDAA in the fighting against government troops, said Bertil Lintner, an author and expert on the region.
Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun and Jared Ferrie in Yangon and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Simon Webb and Robert Birsel