Myanmar has declared a state of emergency in a conflict-torn border region where fighting between the army and ethnic rebels has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
“A serious situation has developed that has put people’s lives at risk, so a state of emergency has been declared starting from today,” the country’s Ministry of Information said on Tuesday, in a statement outlining the measures in the Kokang region of Shan state.
In a separate announcement, the ministry said Myanmar’s army chief now had full control of “rule of law and stability” in the area.
Tens of thousands of refugees have fled Kokang into the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan over the past week, amid the ongoing fighting.
Lin Sen, a volunteer helping refugees in Yunnan, told the AP news agency on Tuesday that he estimated 30,000 to 50,000 refugees had escaped the conflict in Kokang over the past week.
Also on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Red Cross volunteers, who are helping the refugees, came under attack from unknown armed men, resulting in two injuries.
Kokang is dominated by ethnic Han Chinese, and the region has been embroiled in fights since conflicts between the armed group Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and government troops intensified on February 9.
At least 47 Myanmar soldiers and 26 fighters have been killed since fighting broke out.
Htun Myat Lin, the rebel group’s general secretary, told AP that the group is seeking autonomy for Kokang and its ethnic Han Chinese people.
“We want to have a high degree of autonomy where we can manage our own affairs, but we do not wish to split the country of Myanmar,” Htun said.
Htun complained that the ethnic Han Chinese are treated as second-class citizens in Myanmar.
Myanmar has only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule.
Since assuming power in 2011, the government of President Thein Sein has been trying to strike peace agreements with rebels in resource-rich border regions.
Though preliminary pacts have been reached with most of the ethnic groups, clashes with Kachin, Shan and others groups have occurred on and off since the country achieved independence in 1948.
In addition to control over jade, timber and other natural resources in areas under the groups’ control, they want assurances that they will have some say over future troop movements.
The clashes in Kokang have alarmed China, which fears a further influx of villagers fleeing violence and called this week for peace on the border.
The MNDAA was formerly part of the Communist Party of Burma, a powerful China-backed armed group that battled the Myanmar government until the group splintered in 1989.
Fighting between the rebels and the army in 2009 pushed tens of thousands of refugees into southwestern China, angering the government in Beijing.