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 The government recently allotted 1, 268,077 hectares (3, 100,000 acres) of land to the foreign corporate sector in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development.

 Sumera B. Reshi

A fresh spate of brutal violence against the Rohingya occurred in 2012.  This relentless spiral of viciousness led to the mass exodus of thousands of Muslims to the neighboring countries. The atrocities led to the destruction of at least 1,500 buildings and death of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children.  From Human Right Watch to the UN Refugee Agency, the carnage on Rohingyas has been termed as “ethnic cleansing”, however, the major world powers (China, India & the US) are mute or neutral towards the plight of this Muslim minority, the Rohingyas because Myanmar is a resource-rich state and has a geostrategic location in South East Asia. In other words, Myanmar is a sweet pie and the world powers are eager to take a bite.

Despite the appalling treatment of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, the world is quiet but Rohingya is a colorful theme which is selling like hotcakes and has increased TRPs for media outlets since past few months.  There is an economic angle to everything and humanity has become obsolete.  Till now media has shown us that the religion and ethnicity are major themes that have led to the miseries for Rohingyas, however, there are certain other layers which are the bone of contention between ethnic Muslim minority and majority Buddhists and which has led to  ‘ethnic cleansing’ and forced displacement of Rohingyas.   

In the past two decades, there has been a gigantic surge of corporate acquisitions of land for mining, timber, agriculture and water. The World is equally thirsty for the resources and the blood. Since the 1990s, the junta in Myanmar has been involved in seizing the vast stretches of land from smallholders without reparation. Moreover, quite recently the government allotted 1, 268,077 hectares (3, 100,000 acres) of land in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development.

This step, researchers believe might be partly generated by military economic interests rather than religious/ethnic issues.  Forcing out the Rohingya’s from their land might be a good for future business.  Nonetheless, the world has been forced to believe through that the situation in Myanmar’s Muslim minority is totally of religious/ethnic nature. The reality has been eclipsed. There are many dimensions of the plight of Rohingyas in Rakhine state. The vast land grabs in one of the dominant narratives which have affected thousands of Rohingyas.

One-third of the Rohingya live in the western state of Rakhine. This state is the most underdeveloped but with plentiful land and according to the World Bank estimates, Rohingyas are the poor people with more than 78% living below the poverty line. Co-existence was never easy or peaceful; however from 1990 until 2012, there has been a lull.

The attacks erupted in 2012 when Arakanese Buddhists accused three Muslim men of raping an Arakanese woman. Arakanese political party, local monk’s association and civic groups openly appealed for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. The hatred reached its zenith. Buddhist monks gave the situation a religious color so that the impact could be multiplied. The real issue which is land grabbing has been ignored.

As a matter of fact, the military was involved in grabbing land from Buddhist smallholders and other minority groups in the 1990s. However, in 2012 a change in land law worsened the matters. This was a time when Myanmar threw itself open for foreign investors. The upper and joint lower houses of the parliament approved the revision of two land laws (the Farm Land Law & Vacant Land Law) on 30th March 2012. This legal approval opened the gates for a new foreign investment law which allowed 100% foreign capital and lease periods of up to 70 years.

This was not the end. In 2012, the 1963 Peasant law was also cancelled. This was the only law that protected smallholders and the ‘tillers rights to the land’ and was in place during the socialist era. Thus, smallholders became refugees of a new economic order. A la Myanmar, the similar situation is happening in the world where big corporates take the absolute control of resources and the land.

But Myanmar is exceptionally unique because the military has an absolute control over much of the country’s land and resources.  Myanmar has attracted huge media attention. One because of its ruthless religious pursuit and second for snatching land from smallholders to make provisions for massive land grabs.   The moment Myanmar threw open its doors for the first foreign investment, demand for land became a key factor in conflict. The country had confined itself inside its cocoon but after democratization in 2016, it has presented itself at the forefront on the development bandwagon.

Besides, Burma is one of the Asia’s poorest countries but is wedged between Sino-Indian strategic rivalries both hungry for natural resources. In order to catch pace with the development and to acquire wealth by legal or illegal means under the new legal regime, demand for land has become a major factor in conflict. Foreign companies have penetrated in, land capturing has risen and in this race, smallholders lost hold on their fields. They became aliens in their land of ancestors.

They became poorer and the land market boomed. In this context, discrimination and harassment of Rohingyas become a safe passage for the authorities. Expelling them from their land is a way of freeing up land and other resources associated with it. And emphasizing on religion mobilizes passion around religion which can play a key role in aggravating displacement. The Rakhine state has become the hub of rural development and in the garb of this developmental bandwagon, the junta has allotted millions of hectares of land to big corporates.

Even though the Rakhine state is rich in natural resources, the community as a whole feels culturally discriminated, economically exploited and politically excluded by the government, dominated by ethnic Burmese.  In this context, the Rohingyas are perceived as additional competitors for resources and a threat to their own identity.

The jobs and businesses are mostly in the hands of the Burmese elite, thus the Buddhist bitterness against the Rohingyas has political and economic dimension besides religious one.   Further, the Rohingyas feel politically betrayed as they have no right to vote and no accesses to the basic amenities like basic health care, education besides barred to visit the capital city Naypyidaw.

Moreover, the Rohingyas are threatened with a deep-seated Islamophobia in the Buddhist society. The Rohingyas are seen as a threat to Buddhist lifestyle, faith & considered an entrance to Myanmar’s Islamization. This has created a rift between the two ethnic groups and instead of wiping out the differences; the government is supporting Rakhine Buddhist fundamentals to safeguard its interest in the resource-rich state.

Furthermore, Myanmar’s natural resource wealth has been more of a curse than a blessing. It has fuelled the civil war waged in the country for the past 60 years, creating a deeply rooted culture of rent-seeking. The main resources currently being exploited include natural gas, timber, jade, copper, tin, and coal. Given the importance of Myanmar’s resources, China has a particular interest in pressing the Arakan rebels to the peace table.

They operate in the western state of Rakhine, where they can wreak havoc with the Chinese-built pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from the Bay of Bengal to southern China. Keeping Rakhine free of unrest may have also been a factor in China’s blocking the United Nations from issuing a statement on the allegations of atrocities committed by Myanmar’s army there. Also, China has openly voiced support for a military crackdown that has been criticized by the US.

Since Burma acts as a land bridge to India and the Indian Ocean, China would like to create a new railway line connecting it to a deep sea port on the Bay of Bengal, highways extended to India. China wants a peaceful Burma opening up and engaging with the West as long as its interests don’t get trampled. For the US, Myanmar is important because of its location and Japan is a long-time ally and undoubtedly a good friend for Myanmar. 

Japan played a pivotal role in the Myanmar’s debt reduction operation at the beginning of 2013. So the world is run by its own interests and least cares for human lives. The economy is preferred over humanity, so are the Rakhine resources important not the Rohingyas. 

The author is an Assistant Editor of The Legitimate.


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