Rohingya crisis: when economic priorities victimise the vulnerable

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 00:05, Sep 06,2017


SUDDENLY the brutality of the Rohingya crisis is on everyone’s digital window all over the world. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel reputation lies in tatters but her hard core supporters are still standing by her, both at home and abroad.
Images of suffering Rohingyas are all over, creating a wave of sympathy and rage. However, apart from the historical reasons which have contributed to the crisis, what seems to be the root cause is the economic policy of the Myanmar establishment, which is largely the military. It enjoys support from investors of the international world, public and private. And the Rohingyas are an unpleasant
hindrance on the way of implementing this policy. The ethno- religious hatred, though real, is for populist consumption, both at home and abroad.

Army as guarantor of state and profit
Historically, the Rohingyas are not part of the psychological framework of the Myanmar people and its ruling class. There are many reasons behind it but essentially, at this point of time, they are an excluded people and this is not just the feeling of the military. They have been marginalised for long and will never reach a better position. I remember seeing a doll set which had all the Myanmar people represented except those whom we call
Rohiynga and who to them are Bengali Muslims. Both are well hated groups.
The Myanmar ruling class has used this ethnic identity for its own interest and this is common. Between 1947 and 1971 in Pakistan, the Bengalis were hated as proto-Hindus and brown-skinned lesser people. After the March attack, it was, therefore, possible to kill people based on ethnic identity, particularly Bengali Hindus. Between March 26 and end-April, that is before Pakistani forces completed the invasion, Biharis or proxy-Pakistanis were killed which after
December 1971 escalated remarkably. In this age and time, there are no ethnic innocents and it applies to all histories.
But what makes such situations difficult is the role of the army because with armed representatives enjoying impunity, they began killing in March 1971, expecting it to end the crisis quickly but it exploded. After the defeat of December, they escaped with the help of the Indian army but left behind their civilian supporters to face the wrath of a people whom the army had tried to finish off.
The Myanmar army is much luckier as it has faced a weak and vulnerable population who has no backup force unlike Bangladesh in 1971. The refugees became a great advertisement for the brutality of the Pakistani military regime and India as well as Bangladeshis used it to create public opinions globally against Pakistan. But the Rohingyas are in a horrible place as no one wants them because they fulfil no political purpose for anyone. Myanmar does not want them, Bangladesh does not want them and the world does not care about them beyond issuing a few pious statements.
And that is where the issue lies. Why, after certified evidence of genocide, are the world and its immediate neighbours not raising a finger?. The answer lies in the reality of international economics.

Economic equation of ethnic cleansing
IT IS not the Rohingyas who matter but the land they occupy. The military has been grabbing land to make way for a variety of projects for a while in the area, one of the largest and sparsely populated. In fact, by 2013, the land allotment for economic project in the Rakhine state had increased by 170 per cent. And it is easier to expel the Rohingyas compared with other minorities, They are poor, 78 per cent living below the poverty line.
After 2012, throwing them out using violence has become common. The UNHCR estimates that ‘since 2012, 160,000 Rohingya left by sea to neighbouring countries — mostly to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. More than 120,000 Rohingya are still housed in over 40 internment camps.’ (Fortify Rights)
But two major issues are noted. Many Buddhist smallholders have also been expelled in the past few years. And this coincides with timber extraction, mining, and water projects being set up.
The government has also passed the Farmland Law and the Vacant Land Law which allows 100 per cent foreign capital and foreign investment has got the priority. Since the military is also the major backer of business, the issue of protection to minorities does not arise. Interestingly, this new investment has not been in manufacturing, thus creating few jobs.

Buddhist, Muslim both expelled but Rohngyas are being killed
Professor Saskia Sassen, of Columbia University, who has done extensive research on the topic, says that two parallel methods of expulsion have been on in Myanmar. They are Buddhist smallholders and Rohingyas, who are dominantly Muslim and Bengali. He believes that they are part of the same process which is to free up land for large-scale agriculture and mining projects.
But a crucial difference is the use of violence and arbitrary law. While the Buddhist smallholders have been pushed out, they belong to the impoverished section of the majority but the Rohingyas belong to the excluded section of the minority who have no citizenship status or any other rights. The smallholders are not being killed but Rohingyas are and that is why it grabs global attention. It is possible to kill them and get away but not the pushed out members of the Buddhist majority.
In that case, why has there not been any intervention from the big powers who have investments in Myanmar becomes clear. And this includes China that is actually helping in negotiation with several insurgency groups. Vietnam is directly investing in the Rakhine state and India is not interested as it is more concerned about keeping the north-east calm. The United States and the western powers have no reason to feel disturbed if investment opportunities remain positive and what happens to Bangladesh, not just the Rohingyas, is of little consequence to global politics.
An unsettled zone of disturbance is emerging which makes the economic future of the Rakhine investment less secure. At this point, everyone feels secure but with the rise of violent extremist groups, the equations may become less easy to calculate.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. 

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