BUSINESS, AS USUAL: THE ROHINGYA CRISIS, REPATRIATION AND ECONOMIC INTERESTS

by Yali Banton Heath

Content warning: ethnic cleaning, sexual violence.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have just signed an agreement which concerns the repatriation of over 600,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled their homeland in Rakhine state since August. What many are now rightfully calling out as genocide, the persecution, murder and rape of Rohingya people and the burning of their villages has left deep scars.

Recent global media focus has largely taken a religious slant on the issue, but are there other hidden government agendas which must be considered before repatriation begins? As Scott Mclaughlan asserted earlier this month in The Norwich Radical, capitalist development hasn’t served to smooth out ethnic tensions in Rakhine state, but has in fact enhanced hostility between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority. Not only have tensions risen acutely, but the state should also be seen as exploiting these ethnic tensions and inequalities, as a way to hasten their national economic development plan.

Recent global media focus has largely taken a religious slant on the issue, but are there other hidden government agendas which must be considered before repatriation begins?

Economic development has been paramount on their political agenda since the 2015 elections and the lifting of various international trade sanctions.. Although Aung San Suu Kyi blames militant Rohingya groups for the instigation of the violence, it is worth digesting these allegations with big serving of scepticism. The Rohingya have been oppressed and persecuted under the state for years. Furthermore, the backlash of the tatmadaw has been massively disproportionate. The systematic atrocities ongoing in Rakhine state cannot be separated from a trend in nationwide land issues, and should not only be perceived through a religious/ethnicity lens, but also through an economic and business one.

(A burnt house is seen in a village near Maungdaw, in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar, September 12, 2017. Image via asiacorrespondant).

Historically, legislation such as the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the The Foreign Investment Law of 1988 have laid the foundations for the Myanmar government to acquire land nationwide for public use or to further their own investments, as well as encourage investments from overseas.

Myanmar sits as China’s link between India and Beijing, and is attracting foreign investment on a grand scale. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation Master Plan for the agriculture sector between 2000-2031 has already allowed for the acquisition of 10 million acres of land deemed to be wasteland in order to convert it into land that better supports investment and enterprise; a lot of which has been funded by Chinese money.

Myanmar sits as China’s link between India and Beijing, and is attracting foreign investment on a grand scale.

To speed up proceedings, in 2012 the Vacant, Fallow, Virgin Lands Management Law was enacted. This allows for businesses, citizens, or government entities to lease land deemed as ‘wasteland’ from the government for agribusiness, mining, building or other economic activities for up to 30 years.

With regard to Rakhine state, figures show that last year, the government’s allocation of land for economic development in the region was ramped from 17,000 acres in 2012 to a staggering 3 million acres in 2016. Additionally, as part of the “One Belt,One Road” project, there are plans in place to develop a $7.3billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu on the Rakhine coastline, as well as a $3.2billion industrial park nearby. The Chinese consortium CITIC is the largest stakeholder in both projects.

Image result for myanmar one belt one road

Extensive Chinese FDI in Myanmar. Image credit: APT News.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the burning of half of the over 400 Rohingya villages in Rakhine state since August and the land’s subsequent conversion to ‘wasteland’ status presents itself as a huge ‘incidental’ benefit to the state and to its masterplan for economic development and foreign investment.

The Myanmar Minister for Social Redevelopment, Relief and Resettlement recently announced that the government shall oversee the reconstruction of the damaged land, as “according to the law, burnt land becomes government-managed land”. Which is…convenient.

I have worked on land rights in Myanmar, and this all comes as no surprise to me. The country is rife with cases of military violence and disruption as a means to take control of land for development projects. One example is The Hatgyi Dam project in Karen state. In September last year, over 3,000 villagers were displaced as a result of violent clashes between the tatmadaw and the Karen National Union armed group; the former of which gained complete control of the area. It was soon discovered that this area of land was under plans for dam construction.

Like most ethnic minorities in Burma, Rohingya do not possess legal Land Use Certificates. Their denial of citizenship recognition by the state means that obtaining legal ownership of their land is impossible.

Like most ethnic minorities in Burma, Rohingya do not possess legal Land Use Certificates. Their denial of citizenship recognition by the state means that obtaining legal ownership of their land is impossible. This already places their livelihoods in a vulnerable position when it comes to land confiscation. With renewed violence and mass displacement, the Rohingya’s chances of security upon returning home are now a million-to-one.

Although the prospects are looking pretty grim, viewing the scenario through an economic lens has its benefits.

  1. It places pressure on foreign investors, namely China, to step up and take responsibility for the role they are playing in this genocide and to contribute to the repatriation process.
  2. It highlights the unjust nature of Burmese land law in that it remains inadequate in protecting ethnic minority groups, and must be revised to guarantee security for returning refugees.
  3. It strengthens the case for laying the blame at the door of the Burmese military and the government, as they have had the most to gain.

Perhaps this is the reason Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has preferred to remain quiet on the issue. She has tried to lay the blame on Rohingya extremists, she continues to encourage unsustainable and unethical investment talks with China, and she is doing very little to advocate for secure land rights for minority groups.

It is clear that the occurrences in Rakhine state are violations of human rights and indigenous rights, and should be considered as ethnic cleansing on a drastic scale. To also recognise the state’s ulterior business motivations, however, can be both wise and useful when drawing up a plan for repatriation.

Featured image: Rohingya to begin move back to Myanmar from Bangladeshi refugee camps. Image credit: Flickr, EU Commission.


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