A police officer guards near a burnt down house during violence in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar August 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Fresh violence has rocked Myanmar’s conflict-wracked Rakhine state, leaving at least seven dead and 15 injured after police opened fire on a surging crowd of revelers in the ancient Arakan heartland of Mrauk U on January 16.

The exodus of an estimated 650,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees caused by the Myanmar army’s brutal “clearance operations” in response to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacks in the state’s north has made global headlines and put the elected government on the defensive against charges of “ethnic cleansing.”

But this most recent spasm of violence between state security forces and members of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist community further complicates the state’s delicate ethnic dynamics and threatens to destabilize a wider geography beyond the border state’s northern reaches.

The events of January 16 and two high-profile arrests of ethnic Rakhine leaders have brought the ethnic group’s grievances to a violent fore, raising the specter of even greater conflict between security forces and the Arakan Army, a Rakhine insurgent group.

In Rakhine as elsewhere, the perceived failure of the central government to devolve power and pave the way for a genuine and inclusive federal system looms large. So, too, does the lack of flow-on benefits to the people from the central state’s exploitation of the nation’s abundant natural resources.

Much of Rakhine state’s population lives in poverty, ranking second in economic hardship to only neighboring Chin State. The Rakhine also feel that only abuses committed against the Rohingya are given airtime by the international community and Western media.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists at the Shwe Zaydi monastery turned into a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe in 2012. Photo: AFP/Christophe Archambault

The recent mass killings of Hindus, as well as members of the Mro and Daignet ethnic minorities, have gone largely underreported. The government continues to impede and deny media access to Rakhine and has blocked an independent United Nations-mandated fact-finding mission.

These tensions, including between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities, have long boiled in Rakhine. But with the state’s northern region hemorrhaging Rohingya refugees and talk now turning to their repatriation, ethnic Rakhine grievances have pivoted back towards the central government again.

On January 16, a crowd gathered in an annual ceremony marking the demise of an ethnic Rakhine kingdom by invading Burmese forces over two centuries ago. The gathering had not been given official permission, according to authorities quoted in news reports.

Earlier that afternoon, a prominent Rakhine activist and writer named Wai Hun Aung was arrested over comments he made during an address in Rathedaung the day prior in which he urged Rakhine people to support the Arakan Army in its revolt against ethnic Bamar supremacy.

On December 18, former Arakan National Party (ANP) leader Aye Maung was arrested in Sittwe for making similar comments in support of the Arakan Army. He said Rakhine people were treated like “slaves” by the ethnic Bamar majority and that people were being organized in an armed struggle for freedom.

Both have been charged under the 1908 Unlawful Association act, colonial-era legislation frequently used to suppress dissent.

The crowd that amassed in Mrauk U on January 16 was not insignificant: state media reported the crowd swelled to as many as 10,000 people; other more conservative estimates, including a Reuters report, put the figure at around half that number.

Injured ethnic Rakhines are taken to a hospital in Sittwe after a fatal police crackdown on protestors at Mrauk U on January 16. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The crowd surged around a government building, with some throwing stones, and security forces fired warning shots using rubber bullets. Officials say the live-round shootings occurred when demonstrators tried to grab guns from the police.

For a moment, reports said, the Rakhine flag was hoisted over the central government’s General Administration Department office. It’s unclear how many of those gathered at the ceremony were avid Arakan Army supporters. An estimated 20 police officials were injured in the melee.

Late last year, a video spread online of Arakan Army chief Tun Myat Naing urging ethnic Rakhines not to fall for divide-and-rule tactics pitting Buddhists against Muslims, which he described as a trap. He articulated a vision to consolidate support among ethnic Rakhine by 2020.

In the last year, there has been a major uptick in Arakan Army activity, seen in heavy clashes with state security forces near the border with neighboring Chin State.

The insurgent group has proven explosives capabilities and is believed to be responsible for a string of recent improvised explosive device attacks targeting security forces. The Arakan Army is part of the Northern Alliance, an umbrella group of ethnic armed organizations opposed to the terms of the government’s peace process.

Arakan Army commander-in-chief Tun Myat Naing in a May 6, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

In early 2016, the military-owned Myawady news journal branded the Arakan Army as a terror group and vowed that state forces would “annihilate” them. Tit for tat, in a statement responding the recent Mrauk U violence, the Arakan Army vowed “serious retaliatory measures.”

What all this portends for stability in Rakhine is unclear, but the ramifications are potentially grave. At the time of writing, hundreds of Rakhine had amassed in Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital, as Arakan Army supporting politician Aye Maung was transferred to the city’s prison.

His arrest appears to have galvanized resistance and buried rivalries between factions of the ANP, which he resigned from late last year. There is now talk of a possible major protest in response to his detention. ANP has said it will launch a parliamentary investigation into the murders.

The three main national causes, to use the sloganeering rhetoric of Myanmar’s former military rulers, are non-disintegration of the union, perpetuation of national sovereignty, and perpetuation of national solidarity.

For State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and the autonomous armed forces, preserving the nation’s territorial integrity is of paramount importance. She has said those found in violation of laws in the incident would be prosecuted.

Perceived threats to that sovereignty — whether by ARSA’s purported intent to annex Rakhine’s mountainous Mayu Region, or Arakan Army’s secessionist ambitions for a Rakhine ethno-state — lie at the heart of the state’s frequent resort to violence, as witnessed in the killing of seven at Mrauk U.

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