By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Most Western observers have attributed the ongoing tragedy in Myanmar’s Rakhine province to ethnic and religious intolerance: a Buddhist majority zealously reclaiming its land from Muslim interlopers. Is this the whole story? I don’t think so. For reasons that have received more attention in non-Western media, it makes more sense, I believe, to consider economic motives.
First, let’s agree that Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders are guilty of a thoroughgoing ethnic cleansing of the coastal province of Rakhine. Slaughter. Rape. Village burning. The terrified, desperate flight of those left alive to Bangladesh. There’s plenty of evidence for charging Burmese leaders with crimes against humanity, but the applicability of the term genocide is still being debated. Why might it not apply? Because the goal of this horrendous policy is not to wipe out an entire culture, but “only” to clear the land of its long-despised Muslim inhabitants so that big money can be made by the right people, meaning those already running the country: the military brass, drawn largely from the Bamar Buddhist majority. Think of graft and real estate deals on a scale to make even a Donald E.Trump blush.
Anyone accustomed to thinking a nation’s army should exist only for defense against foreign threats needs to understand that the army in Myanmar is very much a business enterprise with a good grip on the national wealth. Lumber, for instance. And the jade trade across the border with China. So far as I know, Rakhine, until recently, offered little of interest to anyone who didn’t live there.
That wasn’t always the case. Historically, this stretch of coastal land with trade-attracting, wealth-creating deep water ports has known Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist rulers, but the openness to the world that commerce requires ended shortly after Myanmar (then Burma) achieved independence from the British. A grim period of military dictatorship ensued. So thoroughly was an increasingly impoverished population sealed away from the world that foreign aid was largely refused even after a high casualty typhoon swept through. Only in recent years has the Army been constrained to allow a carefully limited civilian role in governance and to invite foreign investment.
At that point, Rakhine was back on the map, and soon it was attracting the attention of a rapacious military.
But first, it seems to have attracted the attention of China.
China, as I have noted elsewhere, has been developing a “string of pearls,” investing in harbor-building and port-leasing ventures creeping along the Southern perimeter of Asia and coming mighty close to connecting with—you guessed it!—the South China Sea, to which China strenuously lays claim these days. This has not filled Indian maritime strategists with glee. Rakhine, therefore, has also attracted the attention of India.
Voila! A real estate boom in the making!
So here’s what India has been up to: (1) Having already built and turned over to Myanmar a deep water port at historic Sittwe at the mouth of the Kaladan river, India now plans a Special Economic Zone 60 kilometers upstream. (2) A highway of economic and strategic importance will connect the port to the interior of Myanmar as well as to India’s landlocked, hard-to-reach Northeastern states. ( 3) Finally, there is a proposal to build a 1575 km long pipeline from the Sittwe gas field to Gaya in the North Indian state of Bihar via Mizoram and Assam. Before this vision is wholly realized, there’s much work to do, but if I were a general I’d be grabbing up that increasingly vacant Rakhine land.
As India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman noted this past February, “If Sittwe is connected with our Bay of Bengal ports [like Kolkata], a lot of trade from India can... land in Sittwe and from there go to Myanmar or CLMV.” That’s Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Road building and trade. Oh, the money to be siphoned off from big bucks contracts! Oh, the traffic to be milked for safe, rapid passage!
Meanwhile, here’s what China has been doing just 80 kilometers south of the Indian SEZ: establishing a port and setting up a Chinese Special Economic Zone at Kyaukphyu. For what purpose? “To provide China with a direct overview of busy shipping lanes of the Indian ocean,” according to the Economic Times. Plus, equally at Kyaukphyu, “an oil and gas pipeline that connects to China’s Yunnan province.”
Thai and Japanese investors are also developing port facilities in Rakhine. And so, as the Economic Times further observes, “A great game is unfolding in the region.”
Noting all these ambitious plans and projects, Atsuko Mizuno, a Japanese scholar from Kyushu University, warned this past spring of inevitable slips between cup and lip as well as another little obstacle. “Beyond taking a long time, there are other problems lurking for India’s planned SEZ, similar to that of the Chinese," he writes,"such as issues with relocating residents [my emphasis].”
Which is why I’m smelling a rat. The scorched earth retribution for two police station raids by alleged Rohingya terrorists has gone beyond any normal, rational response to such incidents. It’s been collective punishment on an indiscriminate, horrendous scale. SO: What if the “insurgents” weren’t Rohingya? What if the attacks were schemes devised to provide a pretext for seizing valuable lands occupied by politically marginal people? It’s worth considering.