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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 10, 2012

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Rohingya miss boat on development
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury and Chris Stewart

The ethnic conflict that ravaged much of Rakhine State in western Myanmar last month was an opportunity for more than settling old and new scores between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines and co-religionist new arrivals from elsewhere in the country.

Those involved were also clearing land in a densely populated area that is set to be among the country's prime bits of real estate as energy-related projects start transforming the impoverished state.

More than 100 people (some reports indicate many times that number) were killed last month, untold others were wounded, and an estimated 28,000 fled or were driven from their homes in clashes between the stateless Rohingya and Buddhist citizens in a recurrence of violence last June. They are the latest incidents involving evicted ethnic groups


around the country weeks before US President Obama visits Myanmar later this month.

"The government has taken the opportunity to create more violence allowing a destabilized and vulnerable state which they can then take the natural resources from. This is believed to be the main reason to why so many villages [in Rakhine State] were razed to the ground," the representative of one non-government organization (NGO) told Asia Times Online, citing the source as a Rakhine resident. The NGO cannot be named for safety reasons.

Identifying specific land-grabbing in the midst of mass upheaval and historic xenophobia such as the state witnessed in October is no easy task, but as Michael Brown, in his book The International Dimension of Internal Conflict points out, "since internal, elite level forces are usually the catalysts of internal conflict, those interested in conflict prevention should direct their attention accordingly".

Prime target
Destruction of the Rohingya settlement in Kyaukphyu, the main town on Ramree Island, south of the state capital Sittwe, provides the most telling evidence of land-grabbing, with more than 14 hectares of property burnt to the ground. (For satellite image of the destruction, see here).

Ramree Island is to be the center of a multi-billion dollar special economic zone (SEZ) based around a deep-sea port and the terminus of gas and oil pipelines being built west and northwards to Myanmar's border with China. The SEZ development hems in but does not directly impact the small but historic Kyaukphyu, built on a spur of land at the island's northern tip and the only significant town on Ramree. The Rohingya area, with sea-frontage on two of its three sides, is now clear for private development by whoever can claim title. (Rohingya settlements within the industrialized zone were attacked in the same period. [1])

The latest violence appears to have started on Sunday, October 21, when at least 11 Muslims were killed after "extremist" Buddhists set fire to their houses in two areas of Sittwe (which is also to benefit from the US$500 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport River Project, being built to link India's eastern ports to Sittwe and from there by river and road to India's isolated northeast). [2]

Days earlier, on October 15, a newly established government body had held its first meeting in Yangon, the country's former capital, its purpose to oversee construction of a multi-billion dollar refinery, industrial and petrochemical complex that will transform the wholly undeveloped Rakhine State, in coastal western Myanmar.

On Monday, October 22, media reported that the new body, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone management committee, had decided to offer an "open tender" for investments in the development of the planned industrial complex, to be built on Ramree Island some 200 kilometers south of Sittwe. [3]

Within hours of the reports, what had started as a local massacre in Sittwe the day before had become open violence and destruction in areas central to the development project and related infrastructure as well as more remote parts of the impoverished state. (For a map sketching the outbreaks of reported violence October 21-24, see Google Map Rakhine troubles.)

The SEZ tender announcement decisively moves forward a development project agreed between Chinese vice president Xi Jinping and the Myanmar government in December 2009 and proposed by CITIC Group, one of China's largest industrial conglomerates. The project divides Ramree Island into several zones specifically designated for services, refining, industrial processing, and ship-repair work. Foreign involvement in this and other projects in the country was made easier by the passing late last week of a much-delayed foreign investment law. (For publicity video of the project, see here.)

All power to China
The SEZ is based around the southern terminus of Chinese-funded U$2.5 billion energy pipelines being built to take oil and offshore gas west and north to China's border with Myanmar's Kachin State (also now in a state of war amid numerous reports of forced evictions and land grabbing).

A shortage of usable land in the state creates a central problem for any development beyond Ramree Island. The Arakan Yoma and other mountain ranges dominate the region, leaving only a sliver of land between them and sea, much of it little more than slightly elevated mud flats liable to inundation by tidal surges. What is left must accommodate SEZ associated infrastructure such as roads, a rail link, and low-priced housing for workers. (For an illustration of the numerous projects planned in the region and elsewhere in Myanmar, see here.)

Muslim Rohingya, considered a stateless people by the Myanmar government and allowed no rights, though they are known to have been in the region for hundreds of years, are an easy target to dispossess. Local Buddhists, here and elsewhere, are also being forced off their land for project developments but can claim a degree of compensation.

On the day the SEZ tender decision was made public, violence spread north to Muslim homes around Minbya town, which sits on the first bit of real land rising from vast tidal mud flats between it and Sittwe, 25 kilometers to the southeast. [4] Two hundred Rohingya were killed in one village (Nagara Pauktaw), one report claims.

An attack the following day was also made on Myebon town, AFP reported. The town sits on a spit of land close to the area's only main road, about 30km east of Sittwe, and overlooks a broad anchorage that leads directly across the convoluted coastline to Kyaukphyu and the site of its proposed deep-sea port, about 50km south.

Numerous villages near Mrauk-U, an ancient capital on the road running northeast from Minbya and due to be strategically important once again in the "new" industrializing state, were also hit.

The town, a former capital for the region, is on the only road linking Sittwe to the rest of Myanmar. Mrauk-U is also to be one of the few stations on a rail link being built from Sittwe to the central plains. Railroad construction has already destroyed part of the 6th century palace grounds, while its famed ancient temple complexes and low hills limit development to the town's northwest.

The destroyed local villages - both Rohingya and Buddhist - were for the most part a few kilometers east and south of Mrauk-U on flat land between it and the Laymro river, where it emerges into a now valuable widening valley from the steep-banked Arakan Yoma. A dam is to be built upstream from this area.

Similar, though less compelling evidence points to land-grabs, rather than ethnic concerns, as being behind expulsion of Muslim villagers from near Pauktaw, a ferry ride from Sittwe and end point of a road from Mrauk-U through Minbya.

Similarly, attacks were reported in Thandwe township, to the south. This region is famed for the pristine Ngapali beach, considered a favorite destination by the jet set who can also take advantage of an 18-hole golf course, possible the only one in the state. The area will inevitably develop as a favored getaway for well-healed management as the SEZ gets underway further north, as will nearby Thandwe town, which at present has little to offer visitors.

Racial tensions were already high in the area - the town's population is reportedly evenly split between Muslims and Buddhists - following the murder of 10 Muslim pilgrims nearby in June.

Ancient hatreds, new profits
It is such tensions between quite different religious and ethnic groups that make it difficult to identify pure profiteering land-grabbing from spontaneous outbursts of conflict and population expulsions.

In The International Dimension of Internal Conflict, Brown cautions that "Many policy makers and journalists believe that the causes of internal conflicts are simple and straightforward. The driving forces behind these violent conflicts, it is said, are the 'ancient hatreds'."

He writes that, "[E]ven if a country's overall economic picture is improving, growing inequities can aggravate intra-state tensions. …. many scholars have pointed to economic development and modernization as taproots of instability and internal conflict."

Rakhine State has yet to experience such growth (its biggest employers at present are arguably the army and foreign aid organizations) and even its tourist industry barely registers. So the world can expect more outbreaks as SEZ activity and money floods in.

However, Brown cautions that such considerations are weak "when it comes to identifying the catalytic factors - triggers or proximate causes - of internal conflict".

Or as American academic James Rule has written, "we know a lot of things that are true about civil violence, but we do not know when they are going to be true." That is, when violence will break out. In this regard, Brown points his finger at the important, but too-often obscured and overlooked role of the wealthy and influential "in triggering internal strife".
"The literature [on the subject] is strong in its examination of .. forces that operate at a mass level… weak in its understanding of the roles played by elites and leaders in instigating violence. … The result is 'no fault' histories that leave out the pernicious effects of influential individuals - an important set of factors in the overall equation."
In Rakhine State, the elite are the army, the local government, religious leaders - and increasingly in the future business families who got rich in Myanmar while it was under military control and are set to get even wealthier as the country develops its infrastructure, industry, and natural resources. 

Continued 1 2

Nowhere to go for the Rohingya (Nov 9, '12)

US's lost moral compass in Myanmar (Oct 30, '12)

Islamic militants take aim at Myanmar (Jul 27, '12)

Fleeing Rohingyas driven from safety (Jun 16,'12)


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