5 June 2015edge review

Photo: Schoolchildren at Dar Paing IDP camp, near Sittwe, Rakhine State (Alex Bookbinder).

Never mind Rohingya rights, says Naypyidaw. Foreign investment will ease Rakhine State’s problems

Over the past few weeks, the steady stream of Rohingya refugees washing up in Malaysia and Indonesia has cast Naypyidaw’s treatment of its unloved Muslim minority in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Although Myanmar has consistently denied that its persecutory policies are responsible for a mass exodus that began with ethnic violence in 2012, the crisis has forced the government to formulate a response.

In a May 28 editorial published in the Nikkei Asian Review, Soe Thane, the Minister of the President’s office, excoriated Myanmar’s foreign critics. “We ask not for finger-pointing, but for help from anyone who will join hands in actually tackling … the myriad problems we face,” he wrote.

He’d have you overlook the fact that upwards of a million Rohingya are stateless under Myanmar’s stringent 1982 citizenship law. Pay no heed, he’d say, to the meagre apartheid-style conditions they must endure. Disregard their severe mobility restrictions, and forget that the government denies them adequate food, healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities.

In Soe Thane’s mind, there’s only one way to tackle Rakhine State’s festering religious tensions: money. Lots of it. “A billion dollars in investment would be transformational,” he wrote. “To those who are today blaming Myanmar for the boat crisis, we ask that you instead help us craft and implement an inclusive development strategy – based not on aid but on investment – that will improve the lives of everyone in Rakhine State.”

To a degree, he may have a point. Despite its abundance of natural resources –offshore natural gas in particular – Rakhine is the country’s second-poorest state.

Most of its inhabitants are Rakhine Buddhists, themselves a distinct ethnic minority within Myanmar. They have their own litany of grievances against the central government, and nationalist politicians are capitalising on anti-government sentiment to gain traction in the run-up to nationwide polls scheduled for November.

“Our No.1 political goal is self-determination. We need a federation. We need development,” said Shwe Maung, a central committee member of the Arakan National Party (ANP), a hugely popular nationalist party representing the state’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority. The ANP was formed in March 2014 through a merger between the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD).

The RNDP had won 18 of the 35 seats in the state legislature in the 2010 polls, comfortably more than the 14 seats won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Myanmar’s ruling party.

With nationwide elections scheduled for November, the government’s battle with Rakhine nationalists for hearts, minds and votes has begun in earnest.

The stakes are high: oil and gas have long been Myanmar’s largest source of external revenue, and much of it is located off Rakhine’s coast.

In October 2013, a natural gas pipeline connecting Kyaukphyu in Rakhine to China’s Yunnan province and operated by a state-run Chinese firm began operating; it will eventually transport 12 billion cubic metres of gas per year to China’s relatively underdeveloped west.

The pipeline is twinned with a crude oil pipeline carrying oil from the Middle East and Africa, bypassing the maritime chokepoint that is the Strait of Malacca. The oil and gas developments have been paired with a plan to establish a special economic zone at Kyaukphyu.

India, meanwhile, is financing a US$288 million network of highways and inland waterways that will link an upgraded Sittwe port with the port of Kolkata to improve access to India’s isolated northeast.

In 2010, the government allowed Rohingya to vote using temporary non-citizen IDs. The government’s cynical use of the Rohingya vote against a rising tide of Rakhine nationalism was deeply unpopular, and the government rescinded Rohingya voting rights in February 2015.

Their disenfranchisement should boost ANP numbers in both the state legislature and in Naypyidaw. And greater numbers, they hope, will give the ANP leverage to advocate for a greater share of resource rents.

Two Rohingya MPs currently hold seats in Naypyidaw, but with the disenfranchisement of their support base, the Rohingya’s tenuous foothold in political life looks set to disappear completely.

And so long as Myanmar’s persecutory policies remain on the books, intensified development will do nothing to improve conditions for Rohingya on the ground.

“This approach might have worked before June 2012, when sectarian violence burned the Rohingya out of their homes and pushed them out of the cities,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Providing development assistance into Rakhine state without a concurrent push to restore the rights of the Rohingya will be like the noise of one hand clapping – which is to say, nothing at all.”

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