On the edge of a mountainside in Northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, several hundred young army recruits kick up the dust as they jog down a trail during early morning military drills.
New recruits are joining groups such as the Arakan Army which has set up training camps in Kachin state, home to fellow Northern Alliance member, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The Arakan Army (AA) formed in 2009 and is currently fighting in Rakhine State against government forces in ongoing skirmishes that have escalated in recent months, amid faltering cease-fire talks.
The AA is the armed wing of the United League of Arakan, headquartered in Laiza. Laiza is the capital of KIA - controlled Kachin State, bordering China.
The Arakan Army say that they have a current force of 7,000 troops.
Like most of the ethnic armed groups within the country who haven’t signed peace agreements, the Arakan army say they are fighting for more self-autonomy 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 female recruit Soe Soe, as she slings an AK-74 over her shoulder.
“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.”
Like the other armed groups in their Northern Alliance, comprised of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) the Ta-ang Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army is in the midst of some heavy fighting as ongoing ceasefire negotiations with the Aung San Suu Kyi - led government and Myanmar military stumble forward.
International investment and regional development has driven up land values and increased pressure on warring groups to bring peace and stability to territory that contains revenue-earning resources or serves as corridors to deliver the goods.
The Arakan Army’s Deputy commander, Dr. Nyo Tun Aung, who also overseas the medic training at the Laiza - based camp, says that the Rohingya Muslims aren’t 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,” Nyo Tun Aung explains. “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.”
The Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine State is often referred to as Bengali by the Burmese population, a derogatory term insinuating that they come from neighboring Bangladesh.
More than 750,000 Rohingya were driven out of Rakhine State during an army clearance operation by Myanmar forces in 2017.
Now, more than 900,000 remain in Bangladesh refugee camps and top Myanmar officials are under investigation by international rights groups for crimes against humanity.
Despite the majority of the Rakhine state’s civilian population being predominately Buddhist ethnic Rakhine, the locals have still been a target of the central Burmese army.
Key economic zones under development in Rakhine State - and funded by China and India - have already led to massive displacement of both the Buddhist and Muslim populations.
The US $484 million Kaladan project plans to connect Sittwe port with the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata while China is backing a deep sea port in Kyaukphyu, estimated at US $1.3 billion.
A $1.5 billion oil pipeline will also run from the Bay of Bengal to China.
While the pipelines and deep sea ports will provide oil and gas to neighboring countries, the local population has yet to see the benefits.
“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 AA Second Lieutenant Kyaw Than, on the sidelines of the training camp.
In addition to the lack of electricity in parts of the state, the civilian population is also facing blockage of internet services.
In June 2019, Myanmar’s government shut down the internet in nine townships - eight in Rakhine State and one in Chin State - impeding humanitarian aid, business, media access, and human rights monitoring, according to a Fortify Rights report, a human rights group with a focus on Asia.
In justifying the shutdown, Telenor Group said the Ministry of Transport and Communications cited “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities, cited the report.
“A blackout on internet access for civilians creates an enabling environment for human rights violations,” said Fortify Rights’ Matthew Smith.
“Instead of limiting communication, the Myanmar and Bangladesh authorities should be facilitating access for humanitarian aid workers, journalists, and human rights monitors to civilians in need,” Smith added.
Meanwhile, counter-terrorism charges filed by the Myanmar Police Force against four Arakan Army leaders for attacks on police posts in Rakhine state earlier this year, remain outstanding - as ceasefire talks continue with the ethnic groups.
The charges against members of the AA, are the first in which any ethnic leaders have been charged under the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law
If convicted, the AA leaders face three to seven years in jail with or without a fine under the law’s Section 52(a), according to Myanmar press.
Kyaw Tint Swe, Myanmar’s Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor, said that Rohingya repatriation is still on the table, even as the ongoing conflicts continue.
“Our priority now is to expedite repatriation and to create a more conducive environment for verified returnees,” he stated, during a September 28 UN General Assembly meeting.
Meanwhile Cease-fire talks continue between government forces and the various ethnic armed groups with hopes of finding common ground.
“Our main goal to fight is we want the equality and self determination,” reiterates AA Deputy commander Nyo Tun Aung.
“This is outstanding point and policy from our organization. We want to be able to have our own Arakan State future.”