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Violence in northern Myanmar tests Suu Kyi's resolve

Artmed groups attack on military base sees nine dead and 30 wounded

The border town of Muse is vital to trade between Myanmar and China.

YANGON -- Ongoing clashes between government forces and armed ethnic minority groups in Myanmar's Shan State pose a stern test for Aung San Suu Kyi's fledgling government, which has made ending the decades-long conflict a top priority.

The fighting began Sunday when four armed groups, including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Kachin Independence Army, attacked a military base in the border town of Muse. At least nine people were killed and more than 30 wounded as of Thursday. The militias have called the assault an inevitable response to pressure by government forces.

A state-run newspaper printed a message from State Counselor Suu Kyi on Thursday deploring the violence in the midst of efforts toward national reconciliation and urging the armed groups to join the peace process. The military has launched airstrikes against four ethnic militia bases since Wednesday, local media reported.

Myanmar has been plagued by conflict between ethnic minorities and the Burmese majority since gaining independence in 1948. The government entered talks with each of the ethnic armed groups in 2013, under then-President Thein Sein, and signed a cease-fire agreement with eight groups in October 2015. But 10 or so groups, most of which did not sign on to the agreement, continue to fight in Shan and Kachin states.

Suu Kyi's government began political dialogue with the major ethnic armed groups in August, aiming for a nationwide cease-fire in February 2017. But prospects of achieving this goal look increasingly dim.

The chaos near the Chinese border has hit Myanmar's economy. China is Myanmar's largest trading partner, accounting for 40% of both imports and exports. Some 90% of cross-border trade runs through Muse, the site of Sunday's attack, as do pipelines carrying oil and gas from the coast of the Indian Ocean to inland China.

About 3,000 people are believed to have fled north from Shan State to China's neighboring Yunnan Province since Sunday. The Chinese government has called for restraint on both sides but has not intervened. If the fighting expands or drags on, it could throw a wrench into the new Myanmar government's efforts to be a good neighbor.

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