KUTKAI, Myanmar (AFP) – An army helicopter buzzes overhead and ambulances travel up wet empty roads in Myanmar’s northeast, ferrying aid to thousands of residents displaced by fresh clashes between rebels and the military.
Burnt-out cars and bullet casings lie along the road to Shan state’s Kutkai – a town ringed by mountains, poppy fields, and a patchwork of ethnic armed groups fighting for more autonomy and control over land and resources.
“We are still afraid to go back home,” Ba Yi, a 63-year-old former teacher, told AFP while sheltering in a monastery.
“Every time I hear explosions, I want to go away.”
The area near the Chinese border has been riven by armed conflict for decades, and Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to secure peace when she took office in 2016.
It is also home to what experts believe to be the world’s largest methamphetamine-making region, fuelling a complex web of conflict.
Fighting in the region escalated after rebel attacks on an army academy and police outposts killed at least 15 this month, operations the military said were in retaliation for a drug crackdown.
Local civil society organisations say more than 2,000 people have been displaced.
“Even if I wanted to go back to my home, I can’t go… the situation is not peaceful in my village,” said Lyaw Aye Pwint, an 18-year-old student.
The United States (US) embassy issued a travel warning this month for more than a dozen towns in Shan state due to “civil unrest and armed conflict”.
Dozens of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) workers were evacuated last week days after an ambulance driver was killed in an attack blamed on rebels.
But rescue workers are still braving the danger to bring aid to the displaced.
“The main missions are to send provisions to the villagers from restricted areas and try to rescue people from conflict areas and send them to shelters,” said Tin Win, part of a volunteer aid convoy.
Myanmar’s army has long battled different insurgent groups fighting for more autonomy in a country dominated by the Bamar ethnic majority.
Amid the recent fighting, the army is still making large drug seizures.