A steady stream of men, women and children arrive by the hundreds at Mansu Monastery in rural northeastern Myanmar. Each day brings a fresh wave of people fleeing a new outbreak of conflict that threatens to derail the country’s already fragile peace process. Powdered with red dust after hours on open-air flatbed trucks through mountain roads, they enter Lashio, the largest city in Myanmar’s Shan state. New arrivals walk into the monastery quarters carrying bundles of belongings and stories of violence from the streets and surrounding suburbs of Laukkai, capital of the Kokang Special Administered Zone bordering China.
Just before dawn on Monday, members of a Kokang-based armed group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) attacked a hotel in Laukkai and several outposts of Myanmar police and armed forces, known locally as the Tatmadaw. Government figures estimate that there were at least 30 fatalities, including at least five civilians, and about 20 of the deceased were burned beyond recognition. “I can’t live there anymore, there’s too much shooting,” Than Naing Tun, a 35-year-old sugar-cane farmer, tells TIME as he waits at the monastery to board a truck back to his hometown in Magwe.
Most, if not all, of the displaced people arriving in Lashio — about 100 miles southwest of Laukkai— are migrant workers from Myanmar’s central plains. Attracted by the somewhat higher wages on offer in Kokang, many labor in the fields or work at recycling plants. “Our families found out from watching TV, and all of the phone lines [in Laukkai] were cut,” Than Naing Tun says, “they were so worried, they thought we were dead.” While the migrants try and make their way back to central Myanmar, the Kokang people, who are ethnic Chinese, have mostly fled across the border into Yunnan province in China. Humanitarian agencies and local aid workers estimate that more than 10,000 people have made their way over the border.
Several of those who fled to Lashio tell TIME that almost everyone in Laukkai is attempting to leave, as the sounds of gunfire, and what they believe were mortar shells, have resumed each nightfall since the early hours of Monday morning. Myint Kyi, 44, seated beside her 14-year-old daughter, says she heard gunfire and explosions for several hours before daybreak on Monday. When the sun rose and the sounds died down, she walked to a nearby hotel about 50 m away from her apartment, where the fighting first broke out. There she says she saw four dead bodies — three men and one woman — still lying on the ground outside. She decided to leave with her family. “We left everything behind,” her daughter San San Maw says. “We left so fast we didn’t even bring our slippers.”