In this picture taken on May 11, 2018, an internally displaced child uses a flashlight at a temporary shelter in Danai, Kachin state. Image Credit: AFP

Danai, Myanmar: Seng Moon grabbed her day-old baby and fled into the thick jungle, joining thousands of villagers escaping fighting between ethnic Kachin rebels and Myanmar's army, now reinforced by a unit notorious for its brutal "clearance" operations.

The insurgency in Myanmar's remote northeast has festered for six decades, but unlike the Rohingya crisis in the far west of the country, it has garnered few global headlines.

Fighting has surged dramatically this year, displacing 20,000 people since January, adding to the legions already uprooted by one of the world's longest-running civil wars.

Often called the "forgotten war", the Kachin conflict is a messy struggle over autonomy, ethnic identity, drugs, jade and other natural resources between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar state.

On April 11, with the sound of gunfire and fighter jets closing in, the villagers of Danai township sought refuge in their paddy fields.

Three days later shells started falling on their village and leaders took the decision for the 2,000 inhabitants to flee.

Seng Moon, 22, had given birth to her daughter only the day before.

"I felt like I was dying," she told AFP at a camp in Danai town. "It was so difficult and we had to cross a river."

For the group that included many young children, as well as the sick and elderly, progress through the arduous jungle terrain was slow.

But they were lucky to encounter local elephant handlers - known as mahouts - who helped ferry the most vulnerable across a chest-deep river to a displacement camp in the grounds of a small, wooden church.

Ethnic Kachin are mainly Christians in a nation that is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

33rd Light Infantry

 International focus has been on the crisis in Rakhine state, from where some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been driven into Bangladesh by a relentless military campaign the UN says amounted to "ethnic cleansing".

An army unit accused of atrocities against the Rohingya - the 33rd Light Infantry Division - has now been redeployed to Kachin.

While the scale of violence in Kachin does not match operations against the Rohingya, experts say the deployment of the unit is an ominous sign for civilians.

"Yes, they are here," Kachin state minister for security and border affairs, Colonel Thura Myo Tin, told AFP without giving any further details about their mission.

Human Rights Watch accuses the unit of "multiple massacres" in northern Rakhine while Amnesty International has recorded "violations" against civilians on previous missions to Kachin.

"Kachin civilians... have little hope of divisions like these changing their behaviour," HRW Myanmar researcher Rich Weir said.

Surge in fighting  

The insurgency in the northeast is one of two dozen ethnic minority rebellions that have plagued Myanmar since independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

 Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi said forging nationwide peace was her main priority after her government assumed power two years ago, ending decades of military domination. But the army still retains control over security issues.

The Kachin conflict reignited in 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire collapsed. Clashes have intensified since 2016, displacing more than 100,000 in Kachin and the north of neighbouring Shan state.

Independent analyst David Mathieson said the military appears to be taking advantage of the focus on the Rohingya to attack the KIA and bring it "to the peace negotiation table".

The military is also "targeting the KIA's sources of income" in amber and jade mining areas, he added.

Myanmar's army accuses the KIA of involvement in an attack at the weekend on security posts and a casino in Shan that left at least 19 dead.

The military says it is protecting the country's sovereignty and borders. But the KIA's political wing has a different view.

"They are invaders. We are defenders," said Dau Hka, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).

"The fighting will stop immediately" once the military halts its offensive, he added.

Peace protest crackdown

The Kachin conflict is a powerful rallying cry in a country whose citizens suffered under decades of junta repression.

Youth groups have led peace protests that spread from Kachin's capital Myitkyina across the country.

In Myanmar's largest city Yangon, riot police on Saturday arrested several demonstrators at a large rally.

Protest leaders in Kachin were also fined and will likely face further charges.

"We haven't done anything wrong," said 24-year-old Sut Seng Htoi, co-leader of the Kachin Youth Movement.

"We have only asked for help to allow the trapped people to escape."

For now church grounds around Myitkyina are providing sanctuary to those able to escape remote villages.

Sin Na Khawn Bu's family says she is over 100 years old and was carried some 30 kilometres by her grandson to safety.

"I have not been able to eat well for 12 days because I'm so afraid," the centenarian told AFP, stuttering and rocking back and forth as she spoke.

"We are suffering a lot. Please help us."