SITTWE, Myanmar — The blood was flowing again, as it has so often, in Rakhine State, where the jungle of the Mayu hills meets the muddy flats of the Bay of Bengal: Ethnic militants ambushed four police bases on Myanmar’s Independence Day in January, killing 14 officers.
The Myanmar Army responded with its customary ferocity toward what it termed a “terrorist” group.
The insurgents would be “crushed,” added Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar’s civilian leader. Fatal clashes continued through February, and a 7-year-old child was killed in the crossfire. On Wednesday, two police officers were killed by a land mine blamed on the militants.
Rakhine, like Sarajevo or Darfur, has become a global byword for ethnic cleansing, a place where in 2017 members of the country’s Buddhist majority carried out the mass expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group, an act accompanied by widespread rape, killing and the burning of entire villages that United Nations officials called genocide.
The Myanmar military used a deadly raid by Rohingya militants on police posts and an army base as the excuse for the rampage that ensued.
But it wasn’t Rohingya insurgents who conducted the fatal assault on the police on Jan. 4. Instead, the attack came from the Arakan Army, a guerrilla force from the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group that makes up the majority of the population in the state.
The Rakhine’s shared faith, however, has not fostered unity with Myanmar’s dominant ethnic group, the Bamar. Since its founding a decade ago, the Arakan Army, made up of Rakhine militants, has killed hundreds of Myanmar soldiers, far more than Rohingya insurgents have.
“Their dream is to take back Rakhine State in 2020,” said Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the office of the Myanmar commander in chief. “That’s why the Arakan Army is launching raids now.”
A narrow strip of land along the west coast of Myanmar, Rakhine State, once part of an independent kingdom known as Arakan, has long felt a world away from the Bamar heartland. A jungled mountain range, where leopards and elephants roam, separates Rakhine from the rest of Myanmar, binding it closer to the South Asian subcontinent than the rest of Southeast Asia.
Sittwe, the state capital, retains the air of a place left behind. Often, the loudest sound at night is the flapping of the wings of the giant fruit bats that colonize the city’s trees. Pedicabs powered by sinewy men still provide a main mode of transportation.
While the government is firmly in control in Sittwe, resentment festers in its narrow streets like the entrails discarded from the city’s fish market. Once, Rohingya sold their catch here. But they were chased out by Myanmar soldiers and Rakhine mobs. Today, most Rohingya have either fled to Bangladesh or are penned in internment camps.
Yet ethnic Rakhine show little interest in the plight of the Rohingya. Instead, they stress their own persecution, which they feel has been ignored amid a global hand-wringing over the Rohingya exodus.
For decades, the Myanmar military has kept Rakhine villages cowed and, according to human rights groups, has coerced children into forced labor.
“We are the ones suffering from the government’s black hand,” U Aye Maung, a former leader of the Arakan National Party, said in 2017, dismissing well-documented instances of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that were happening at the time and were abetted by the Rakhine.
In a recent interview, Daw Saw Oo Nyunt Khin, the general secretary of the Rakhine Women’s Union, whose members have shamed Rakhine who dared to support their Muslim neighbors, readily acknowledged the Myanmar military’s use of rape as a weapon of war in its campaigns against various ethnic armies battling the state. But she bristled at the idea that the Rohingya might be victims, too.
“How can the army rape Muslim women?” she asked. “They have such a big population so the women are rarely alone. It’s hard to rape someone who is not alone.”
A common Rakhine complaint is that the Rohingya have larger families, and so threaten the Buddhist majority in the state. (Population statistics do not bear this out, and most Rohingya are gone now anyway.)
When the Rakhine turn their rancor on the central government, they lament the fact that although the state boasts natural gas reserves, little revenue trickles back to local residents.
“Our land is rich, but the Rakhine people get no profits,” Mr. Aye Maung said. “Everything is stolen from us.”
There’s little question Rakhine, like other frontier regions, lags behind Myanmar’s Bamar-majority areas in economic development.
When I first visited Sittwe a decade ago, local residents could only expect a couple hours of electricity a day, if that. At the library, residents in sarongs lined up for their chance to go online.
Emails from Sittwe were brief but poignant.
“How are you? Do you remember me? Now I stop. Computer go for someone else.”
Today, on Sittwe’s silty beach, construction has started on condominiums backed by South Korean investors. A few seafood restaurants have strung up Christmas lights in hopes of a tourist boom. But so far, few visitors have come, and the state may become even less inviting to outsiders if the Rakhine insurgency heats up.
In the last elections in 2015, the Arakan National Party won more state seats in Rakhine than Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Since then, local disenchantment with the nation’s leaders has grown.
As Rakhine nationalist sentiment rises, the Arakan Army claims it has amassed at least 7,000 foot soldiers. Others estimate their strength at around 2,500 fighters. The International Crisis Group warns that “there is a serious risk that an escalatory dynamic takes hold, which could plunge the state deeper into armed conflict.”
Even the Arakan Army’s supporters admit that the militia’s weapons are bought with profits from the drug trade. Last month, Facebook banned the Arakan Army for crimes including “terrorist activity, organized hate, mass or serial murder, human trafficking.” (Facebook kicked the commander in chief of the Myanmar military off its platform last year.)
In addition to responding to the simmering insurgency with characteristic force, the central government has been taking Rakhine leaders into custody.
For more than a year now, Mr. Aye Maung has been in prison on high treason charges and, after losing an appeal in January, could be sentenced to death if convicted.
“The reason he is in jail is because the government knows that Aye Maung can unite the Rakhine people during the 2020 elections,” said Daw Mya Mya Thet, his wife and a retired teacher.
Mr. Aye Maung’s supposed crime? Giving a fiery speech last year marking the fall of a flourishing, independent Arakan kingdom to an invading Burmese army more than 230 years ago, a loss still keenly felt by many Rakhine.
In January 2018, Myanmar security forces attacked protesters in Mrauk U, once an Arakanese royal capital and now a misty landscape of half-ruined Buddhist pagodas. Nine people were killed during the demonstrations, which marked the anniversary of the conquest of Arakan.
One of those killed was Maung Kyaw Thein Soe, a 15-year-old student. At the mortuary, his parents saw his body, bayonet wounds deep in the neck. That was their last sight of their son, his father, U Hla Thein Tun, said.
The one photo they had of their boy, the parents put in his coffin. The boy’s phone, which was filled with images of his student life, was never returned by the police.
“All we have,” his father said, “is an empty photo frame.”