In Myanmar, several hundred young people kick up dirt as they run early one morning along a dusty path. They are preparing to join groups such as the Arakan Army (AA), which operates training camps in the northern state of Kachin.
The area also is home to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another armed group.
The AA was formed in 2009 and now claims to have 7,000 troops. It is fighting in Rakhine State against troops loyal to the government of Myanmar, also called Burma.
The Arakan Army says it is fighting for more self-rule and control over their territory.
“The reason I joined the Arakan Army and train as a female soldier is because I don’t want to see the Myanmar army oppress and kill Rakhine people anymore,” says Soe Soe. The young woman carried an AK-74 rifle on her shoulder as she spoke to a VOA reporter.
“The Myanmar army bullies and treats us badly in every way they can. I can’t take it so I made a decision to serve my nationality and army,” Soe Soe added.
The AA is just one group belonging to the Northern Alliance. Others include the KIA, the Ta-ang Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
The Arakan Army has been involved in heavy fighting in Rakhine State. At the same time, the group continues ceasefire negotiations with both the government and Myanmar’s military.
In Rakhine State, international investment and development has caused land values to increase. So there is growing pressure on armed groups to bring peace to an area that contains valuable resources.
The Arakan Army’s deputy commander is Nyo Tun Aung, a doctor. He says the Rohingya Muslims are not the only group under attack in Rakhine State.
“When there were problems with Bengali in Rakhine State, the world paid attention and had sympathy for them,” he said. “We want to beg the world please look at what’s happened to the Arakan people and feel for us too. We’re also in the same situation like the Bengali.”
In Myanmar, many people use the term “Bengali” when they talk about the Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine State. It means the Rohingya come from neighboring Bangladesh and are not ethnic Burmese.
More than 750,000 Rohingya were driven out of Rakhine State in army operations in 2017. More than 900,000 now live in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Top Myanmar officials are under investigation by rights groups for crimes against humanity.
Most of Rakhine state’s civilian population are Buddhist ethnic Rakhine, but they are still a target of the central Burmese army.
Parts of the state are of large economic importance. Both China and India have provided money to finance development. The development has already led to displacement of the area’s Buddhist and Muslim populations.
The $484 million Kaladan project plans to connect Sittwe port with the Indian seaport of Kolkata. India is supporting a deep sea port in Kyaukphyu. That project has an estimated cost of $1.3 billion.
A $1.5 billion oil pipeline will also stretch from the Bay of Bengal to China.
While the pipelines and deep sea ports will provide oil and gas to neighboring countries, the people of Rakhine have yet to see any gains from the development.
“One day I stand on top of the mountain. I look down to the capital and I see their lights all over the city. But when I look back to our village, I hope to see the lights, but what I see is only the darkness,” says Kyaw Than. He is a soldier with the Arakan Army.
Police announced anti-terrorism charges against four Arakan Army leaders earlier this year for attacks on police buildings in Rakhine State. The charges are the first ever against an ethnic leader under Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law.
I’m Susan Shand.
Steve Sandford reported this story for VOANews.com. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words In This Story
rifle – n. a shoulder weapon
bully – v. to oppress; to treat someone in an insulting way
resource – n. a support of money, materials or other things that one needs to operate effectively
beg – v. to ask for help; to appeal