YANGON -- The Myanmar military's escalating battle with armed ethnic groups has driven thousands of residents in northern Kachin State from their homes, the United Nations reports, creating new refugees for a country already under criticism for the Rohingya crisis.
"More than 5,000 people are estimated to be newly displaced since April in Kachin State following heavy fighting between the Myanmar Military and Kachin Independence Army," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report late last month. The agency also noted that some civilians have been unable to leave conflict areas.
"Innocent civilians are being killed and injured, and hundreds of families are now fleeing for their lives," Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur on Myanmar appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, said in a statement May 1. She also urged the government to halt its attacks.
Myanmar has strengthened its assault against the KIA since January. A KIA spokesperson said the military has increased airstrikes and attacks with heavy weapons, forcing about 3,000 civilians to evacuate for churches in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina and 2,000 people to flee for the jungle.
The refugees are facing a shortage of food and water, according to Lin Lin Oo, a lower house representative from the region.
"The KIA is looking for a total cease-fire with the government," said an expert on politics in Myanmar. "Both sides are trying to gain even the slightest advantage before the battle lines harden."
Myanmar has engaged in armed conflicts with more than 20 minority groups since gaining independence from the U.K. in 1948. The KIA, one of the major ethnic forces, demands greater autonomy for the largely Christian Kachin people.
Sporadic fighting between the KIA and Myanmar military since 2011 has displaced about 100,000 people in all. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the government's de facto leader, wants to negotiate for peace by holding a third session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference -- branded after peace talks held by her father, Aung San, in 1947 to quell ethnic tensions -- as early as this month.