The Assault On The Rohingya Is Not Only About Religion — It's Also About Land

The burning of villages and eradication of Rohingya communities might have more to do with development projects funded by China than with religious prejudice.
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People displaced by violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Sept. 12.
People displaced by violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Sept. 12.

PARIS — Religion and ethnicity have been the major focus in local and international news coverage of the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Such persecution is part of a long and cruel history suffered by the Rohingya people.

But there are limitations to this explanation for the current phase of that long-standing violence. Two recent developments make me question whether religion gives us the full picture of what is happening now.

The first is the Myanmar government’s 2016 decision to include a relatively significant 3 million acres of Rakhine rural land in the national list of land allocations for “economic development.” Before this, according to government documents, Rakhine was only in the list for a mere 17,000 acres allocated in 2012. In Myanmar, the government’s language of “economic development” describes allocations of land that the military has de facto control over and have been selling to Burmese and foreign firms for the past 20 years. But Rakhine, a forgotten poor area at the margins of the country, had not really been part of such allocations. To some extent, the international, almost exclusive focus on religion has overshadowed the vast land grabs that have affected millions of people in Myanmar over the years, and now also the Rohingya.

This in itself, then, raises a question: What happened to change that longstanding indifference to the poorest state of the country?

Perhaps it was a Chinese consortium’s plan to develop a $7.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu on the coast of Rakhine and a $3.2 billion industrial park nearby. China-funded development projects in Myanmar would be key links in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. So the land freed by the radical expulsion of the Rohingya might have become of interest to the military and its role in leading economic development around the country.

“Religion may be functioning as a veil that military leaders can use to minimize attention on the economic development part of their agenda.”

Religion may be functioning as a veil that military leaders can use to minimize attention on the land-grabbing aspect of this economic development part of their agenda. This is new in Rakhine, but it has happened in many other parts of Myanmar. For two decades, the military has controlled land allocation to national and foreign actors. The most affected have been minority Buddhists, mostly poor rural people.

In Rakhine, the military may be supporting extremist Buddhist sects who are spurring the persecution of the Rohingya; these Rakhine-based Buddhists are almost as poor as the Rohingya. The military, long in the business of land grabs, cannot lose by enabling the escalating evictions of the Rohingya. Invoking prejudice against the Muslim population and the “criminality” of the Rohingya community may well suit military leaders’ ultimate goal better than if they truthfully declared what they’re really after ― the business of development.

We’ve seen the rapid and absolute elimination of many Rohingya villages over the last few weeks. There was no forced migration of Rohingya to government-controlled camps to protect them from attacks, as was the case in earlier conflicts. Instead, there has been an effort to erase all traces that Rohingya villages ever existed. While attacks and forced expulsions of the Rohingya are not new, there seems to be something nefarious and intentional in the way these current attacks attempt to erase the Rohingya community.

In major military attacks on Rohingya back in 2014, the military moved the affected Rohingya communities into government-controlled camps with the promise that they would return to their villages. That return never happened. Nor did the military ever hold responsible those who murdered Rohingya and burned their houses and fields in the earlier offensive.

“China-funded development projects in Myanmar would be important pieces in Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.”

Chinese enterprises, mostly state-owned, have been key developers in Myanmar for years. And Beijing’s influence is growing. For example, Beijing is a major backer of the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, which threatens to upset fishing industries and displace thousands of people. China is also a key actor in the timber industry in Myanmar’s vast forests. Over a million acres of forest land are being lost every year in recent years; a third of these forests is now gone.

We can see why the Kyaukpyu project would be highly desirable for Beijing. It fits Beijing’s goal of internationalizing its economy and would be an important piece in the $900 billion Belt and Road Initiative. It would give China a major foothold in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean beyond. This is a project with global aspirations.

This is not a side of the Rohingya issue that has been widely included in the international discussion regarding the extreme attacks and expulsions of Rohingya over the last few weeks. The focus in the international community has been exclusively on the fact of religious persecution.

One cannot help but wonder whether Aung San Suu Kyi’s much-criticized silence is partly driven by these mega-projects, as they can bring valuable and much-needed development to Rakhine, the poorest in Myanmar.

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