IN RECENT weeks we have seen an escalation of violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, the poorest and isolated State of Myanmar where Rohingya minorities lives in sub-human conditions
Rakhine, Myanmar: Religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that there are not other factors at play.
In analysing the recent violence, much of the western media has focused on the role of the military and the figure of the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her status as a Nobel Peace prize laureate has been widely questioned since the latest evidence of atrocities emerged.She has maintained silence and refused to acknowledge the atrocities committed on Rohingyas.
Many are now looking beyond religious & ethnic hatred for the violence against the Rohingyas and are considering vested political and economic interests as contributing factors to forced displacement in Myanmar, not just of the Rohingya people but of other minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, and the Mon.
Since the 1990s, military juntas have been taking away the land of smallholders across the country, without any compensation and regardless of ethnicity or religious status.
Land has often been acquired for “development” projects, including military base expansions, natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agriculture projects, infrastructure and tourism. For example, in Kachin state the military confiscated more than 500 acres of villagers’ land to support extensive gold mining.
Development has forcibly displaced thousands of people – both internally and across borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand – or compelled them to set out by sea to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.The land grabbing has benefitted many corporations ,for example agribusiness multinationals such as POSCO Daewoo have eagerly entered the market, contracted by the government.
Myanmar is eyed by neighbouring countries like China & India for its natural resources. In Rakhine State, Chinese and Indian interests are part of broader China-India relations.
These interests revolve principally around the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the region. Such projects claim to guarantee employment, transit fees and oil and gas revenues for the whole of Myanmar.
Among numerous development projects, a transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) connecting Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China, began operations in September 2013. The wider efforts to take Myanmar oil and gas from the Shwe gas field to Guangzhou, China, are well documented.
Coastal areas of Rakhine State are clearly of strategic importance to both India and China. The government of Myanmar therefore has vested interests in clearing land to prepare for further development and to boost its already rapid economic growth.
Earlier, evidence had emerged that the systematic violence against ethnic Rohingyas links to the country’s ambitions to rapidly expand fossil fuel production.
As Forbes reports , thanks to Burma’s “vast, untapped reserves of oil and natural gas” – estimated at between 11 trillion and 23 trillion cubic feet – “and with sanctions over and a world thirsty for new sources of energy, Western multinationals are eager to sign deals.”
Foreign companies eyeing the resources must partner with local companies to bid. This has spurred Burma’s capatilist elite to rebrand as brokers for foreign investors. Foreign investment is currently dominated by Chinese, Thai and Indian firms, who operated relatively unfazed by western sanctions, but American, British and French multinationals such as Chevron, BP, Shell, and Total are jockeying to make up for lost time.
On the one hand, Arakan’s deepening economic crisis, fuelled by the state-backed pipeline project, laid the groundwork for an increase in xenophobia and racism toward the Rohingya. On the other, Burmese state agencies appear to have deliberately fostered the ethnic cleansing campaign to divert populist anger away from the devastating impact of the pipeline project, and instead toward the most easy and vulnerable target to hand.
The tragedy of the Rohingya is part of a bigger picture which sees the oppression and displacement of minorities across Myanmar and into neighbouring countries.
The relevance and complexity of religious and ethnic issues in Myanmar are undeniable. But cannot ignore the the political and economic context and the root causes of displacement .