June 16, 2011 / 8:12 AM / 6 years ago

Q+A-What is behind clashes in Myanmar's Kachin hills?

June 16 (Reuters) - Myanmar troops have clashed with ethnic Kachin rebels near Chinese-built dams this week, threatening Chinese energy interests in the country.

Here are some questions and answers about the conflict and the implications for China.

WHO ARE THE KACHIN REBELS?

They are guerrillas of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the larger ethnic minority forces in northern Myanmar. The Kachin are a hill people and many of them are Christian.

The KIA group was formed in the early 1960s and for years battled the military government for greater autonomy for the Kachin hills along the border with China, which are rich in jade and timber.

The group agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 but that fell through last year when the government tried to force all ethnic minority forces to merge with its military-run Border Guard Force.

The Kachin were among those who refused on the grounds that a merger with the government force would erode their autonomy. The Kachin force numbers at least 10,000 well-armed and experienced fighters.

Ethnic minority rebel armies like the KIA have fought Myanmar's military for decades. Low-level fighting has taken place in the past year; these latest clashes are the most intense.

The Kachin, like most of Myanmar's ethnic minority factions, are not fighting to break away from Myanmar but want a federal system with a high degree of autonomy for their regions.

WHAT HAS BEEN GOING ON RECENTLY?

Beginning last Thursday, Myanmar troops clashed with the KIA. The clashes are near at least two Chinese-built hydroelectric dams and there area fears that fighting could spread to other areas on the border.

At least four people have been killed and Kachin sources estimate 10,000 people have fled into the jungles towards the Myanmar-China border.

Some analysts say the conflict has arisen mainly out of business interests. The KIA was ignored when Myanmar and China agreed a lucrative energy deal, and now the group could be demanding financial incentives, such as protection money.

WHY DOES THIS CONFLICT MATTER TO CHINA?

China has interests in resource-rich Myanmar, particularly in energy. Bilateral trade rose by more than half last year to $4.4 billion, and China's investment in Myanmar reached $12.3 billion in 2010, according to Chinese figures, with a strong focus on natural resources and energy projects.

In October, Chinese state energy group CNPC started building a crude oil port in Myanmar, part of a pipeline project aimed at streamlining oil cargo paths.

In addition, Myanmar gives China access to the Indian Ocean, not only for imports of oil and gas and exports from landlocked southwestern Chinese provinces, but also potentially for military bases or listening posts.

WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN NEXT?

Myanmar's government is only 10 weeks old and has little appetite for war with the ethnic minority forces at this stage, although it is unlikely to tolerate them in the long term.

Still, it faces pressure to protect the dams and other pipeline construction sites to appease China. Since China has significant energy interests in the area, it may use its influence to try to stop the fighting. (Compiled by Beijing Newsroom and Martin Petty in Bangkok; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)

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