Post-election clashes point to civil war in Burma
Rebel armies have vowed to topple new Rangoon regime and heavy fighting has already begun
Thailand put its western border troops on full alert this morning after heavy fighting broke out between Burmese government forces and Karen rebels near the mountainous Burmese-Thai frontier. By mid-day, an estimated 10,000 Karen refugees had fled into Thailand to escape the fighting.
Soldiers of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army also confronted Burmese government army units at the Three Pagodas Pass, northwest of Bangkok. Heavy fighting at the pass was reported, leading Thai and other foreign observers to speculate whether the long-expected all-out war between Burma's military regime and the country's ethnic armies had begun.
A Burmese mortar landed on Thai territory during fighting centered on the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, in Karen State, where Karen rebels have been fighting for independence for more than 60 years. The shell struck near the Thai entrance of the so-called Friendship Bridge, linking Thailand and Burma, in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Three Burmese migrant workers were injured.
At least three fatalities were reported among the civilian population of Myawaddy. The Burmese regime has told residents to leave town so that the army can attempt to retake government offices seized by rebel forces.
Markets and shops in both Myawaddy and Mae Sot are closed and the normally crowded streets are empty.
Mae Sot is home to thousands of Karen refugees, most of whom have fled punitive raids by Burmese government troops. The town is also crowded with westerners working for non-governmental organisations.
The border clashes came as votes were being counted from Sunday's general election, in which the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is expected to score an overwhelming victory after a campaign marked by fraud, intimidation and other abuses. All Burma's civil servants and military personnel were instructed by the regime to vote for the USDP.
The election took place against a backdrop of rising tension between Burma's many ethnic groups and the regime.
Representatives of seven of the groups - some of whom have large, well-trained armies - held a council of war in the Thai border town of Mae Hong Son recently and agreed on a loose alliance with the aim of toppling whatever government takes office after the election. They agreed that an attack on any one of them would be met by a counter-offensive by all.
The ethnic armies have been resisting increasing pressure by the Burmese regime to disband and join a so-called Border Guard Force, under the command of Burmese army regulars. The regime indicated that if they had not agreed to join the force by the time of the election an all-out offensive by the Burmese army would be launched.
The Burmese Army can muster 400,000 fighting men, far more than the ethnic armies can put in the field. But some of the ethnic armies - notably the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army - are well armed and motivated, and used to guerrilla tactics that have caused the regime problems in the past.