By Simon Lewis and Sam Aung Moon
MYITKYINA, Myanmar (Reuters) - Thousands of young people in northern Myanmar have staged one of the largest protests in years, successfully urging authorities to rescue civilians caught up in deadly fighting that threatens to unravel the country's fitful peace process.
Since the army launched a major offensive against one of Myanmar's strongest ethnic rebel groups, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), more than 6,000 people have fled their homes and hundreds are still stuck in danger zones, rescue workers say.
The KIA has regularly clashed with the military in the mountains abutting India and China since 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down. But the 10,000-strong Kachin rebels say the recent fighting is the most intense since they started battling the government for greater autonomy in the early 1960s.
The surprise emergence of the youth movement in Kachin has exposed the frustrations of ethnic groups with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle to fulfill her No.1 promise: to end decades of ethnic wars ravaging Myanmar's lawless borderlands.
At the head of the movement has been Sut Seng Htoi, a diminutive 25-year-old women's rights champion with a beaming smile, who shot to fame on social media as the protests gathered steam over the last two weeks.
"People lost their trust in the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because the people from the whole country elected the NLD, the civilian government, to avoid wars and fighting," Sut Seng Htoi told Reuters.
Kachin state's National League for Democracy (NLD) Chief Minister Hkyet Awng declined to answer Reuters reporters' questions. Military Spokesman Major-General Tun Tun Nyi was unavailable for comment.
In early April, the youth protesters set up a camp resembling "Occupy" protests against economic inequality staged globally in 2011. The "ground zero" for the protests was Manau Park at the heart of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state.
More than 5,000 protesters for days thronged the streets of the city and waved "Free the IDPs!" placards, filming protests with head-mounted cameras and posting videos on Facebook.
After more than a week of demonstrations, Suu Kyi dispatched the minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, Win Myat Aye, and on Monday some 150 trapped villagers - known as "internally displaced persons" or IDPs - were allowed passage to safety.
Sut Seng Htoi said the movement was non-political and focused on humanitarian goals. But she was scathing of Suu Kyi's promise of national reconciliation, saying that the reality has been an accommodation between her ruling NLD party and the army that has seen the civilian administration defending the army's actions.
DRONES AND BANANA STEMS
Suu Kyi made the peace process her top priority after coming to power two years ago, but the fighting with myriad ethnic armed groups has escalated to the most intense in decades - not just in Kachin, but in several other ethnic minority areas, including those where rebels have signed a "nationwide" ceasefire deal with the government.
Because of the mounting tensions, a peace summit meant to convene every six months to advance the talks has not been held since last June. Most ethnic Kachin are also against the KIA joining the deal.
After launching a democratic transition in 2011, the military has ceded some political power, but has kept full control over security and defense matters.
The army's push against the Kachin insurgents since April 11 comes amid international criticism over its crackdown on the Rohingya in Myanmar's west, which drove nearly 700,000 people to Bangladesh amid accusations of killings and arson by troops.
The offensive has pushed villagers such as Roi Ja out of their villages and into the jungle for much of the last month.
"We only had a little bit of rice so we ate banana stems. We used the herbs from the forest for medicine," said the 39-year-old, one of about 200 people from Aung Hlawt village who arrived at a church on the outskirts of Myitkyina on Wednesday.
Unmanned drones buzzed near their makeshift jungle camps at night, she said.
"We didn't flee when we heard the drone doing surveillance. But they must have suspected that the KIA was there, so they shelled us in the morning," she said.
Dau Hka, a spokesman for the KIA's technical advisory team based in Myitkyina, said the Myanmar military's renewed offensive appeared to be targeting areas where civilians live in close quarters with rebel troops.
"They fire artillery, there are often casualties and the civilians scatter into the jungle," he said.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Friday quoted a military commander in the area saying that troops "follow(ed) the rules of engagement" in the area.
"We only go after military targets and after the skirmishes we look after the villagers' houses," Brigadier General Kyaw Soe Min was quoted saying.
Asked why the army had been attacking the KIA since 2011, Colonel Thura Myo Tint, Kachin state minister for security and border affairs, told a new conference on Friday: "The army exists according to the constitution. The reason we are trying to destroy them is because of the state's sovereignty."
He accused the KIA of forcibly recruiting civilians.
A government rescue of about 150 people this week was extensively covered in state-run media, although hundreds of people are still hiding out in jungles.
Meanwhile, the protests have been "paused" as a result of that progress, say organizers.
However, said Sut Seng Htoi: "If the military keeps making the civilians the victims of war, we will confront them. But we won't even use a needle - our methods are non-violent."
(This version of the story corrects spelling of spokesman's name in paragraph 20.)
(Reporting by Sam Aung Moon and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Ann Wang; Editing by Alex Richardson)