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.
On Thursday, The Irrawaddy reported that the army would hold talks with armed groups, likely the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which are believed to be involved in the attacks that began on August 15.
The U.S. 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 NGO 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.
On Sunday the military said it had found 762 kg (0.8 tonnes) of crystal meth in backpacks in eastern Shan state, a haul worth an estimated $12.6 million.
On August 22 it confiscated dozens of bags of meth tablets worth $7 million.
“We are still clearing off the area in northern Shan State. We still have fighting in that area,” Zaw Min Tun, an army spokesperson, told AFP.
With reporting from AFP