Is redevelopment of Rakhine state synonymous with the recovery of the Rohingyas ?

Prime Minister Modi and Myanmar President Myint held talks during his visit to India recently – 10 MoUs (memorandum of understanding) were signed between the two countries. The focus was on development projects under India’s assistance, particularly in Rakhine state. The agreements included an MoU on ‘Cooperation for Prevention of Trafficking in Persons; Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Re-Integration of Victims of Trafficking’.

Rakhine State Development, a timeline :

– A total of 390 Rohingya villages, complete with 38,000 physical infrastructures including mosques, shops, homes, rice warehouses, public halls and so on were destroyed.

– Dr. Win Myat Aye, who is the Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement invoked a law on natural disasters under which, he said, “burnt land becomes government-managed land, according to state media. Within a few months, the government sent in bulldozers to flatten what was left of Rohingya homes, mosques and other buildings in dozens of villages, satellite images showed.

– The UEHRD (Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development) was established on 17th October 2017 with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as its Chairperson. UEHRD’s Chief Coordinator, Dr. Aung Tun Thet, said: ”There are two parts in UEHRD, namely committee which is government led and does national level project. To steer these there are 10 private sector task forces. We deal with business people a lot for the development. We try to get international investment. State Counsellor herself came to support the investment event in Rakhine state, held not long ago. We sign MoUs. “

– On 20 December 2017, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankhar visited Myanmar and signed an MoU on Rakhine State Development Programme with Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement aimed at “socio-economic development and livelihood initiatives in Rakhine State” that included “a project to build prefabricated housing in Rakhine State to meet the immediate needs of returning people.” Under the MoU, India pledged US$25 million for a five-year development project in Rakhine State. India’s understanding perhaps was shaped by its calculation that any delay in stepping up its role might allow other players to leverage the situation for geopolitical gains, at the cost of its own interests*. India handed over 250 prefabricated houses by July 2019.

*Own interests – India has economic interests with its companies holding stakes in Shwe Gas field off the coast of Rakhine State. Along with energy interests and plans to build cross-border pipelines, India also has a connectivity interest linking its landlocked northeastern region with the Bay of Bengal through Rakhine State under a joint project with Myanmar that includes development of port at Sittwe, inland-waterway in the Kaladan River, and road construction to connect it with India’s Northeast. India was wary that instability in the Rakhine State would have adverse effects on these interests.

– UEHRD, which was organized to help in the rehabilitation and development of the strife-torn state, has been accused at the World Court of being complicit in the genocide by seizing the land of Muslims.The UN investigators have accused the UEHRD of building infrastructure on the burnt land and has geared up its commercial and industrial-scale agricultural developments. UEHRD has denied these allegations.

– India, Myanmar Sign 10 Pacts With Focus On Development Of Conflict-torn Rakhine State. Both sides agreed to expedite the implementation of a set of 12 projects under the second phase of the Rakhine State Development Programme and to further strengthen their development cooperation

So, is this development of Rakhine state synonymous with the recovery of the Rohingyas?

A lack of development, poverty and governance structures is definitely a risk factor which leads to conflicts. At the same time, development interventions in areas affected by violent conflict must take into account conflict sensitivity. Development that fails to be sensitive to conflicts will not be effective in the long run, and might aggravate the conflicts. Yes, there is a convergence of development, reconstruction activities and peace building, and economic development might help to reduce such conflict. But this is only likely to be the case if equity, fairness and inclusion are key factors in the development outcomes.

The mere existence of a social welfare and resettlement project cannot be equated undeniably with peace. Strategically identifying the objectives and the relevance of the approaches to different phases of conflict/peace building should be disclosed. The question that needs to be addressed is, “Are the people of Myanmar ready to welcome the Rohingyas as full citizens?”

In more than 70 years of recorded abuses by the Burmese armed forces, there are almost no records of military officers being disciplined in Rakhine State or in the many other areas where armed conflicts continue inside the country. The ICJ case, lodged by the Muslim-majority nation of Gambia, in West Africa, on behalf of dozens of other Muslim countries, called for emergency measures to be taken against the Myanmar military. But Aung San Suu Kyi rejected allegations of genocide when she appeared at the court in December 2019.

Rakhine was a colony with the majority of the residents being Buddhists who consistently outnumbered Rohingya Muslims by 3:1. Although millions of displaced and deported Rohingyas in Bangladesh and in diaspora wish to return to Rakhine they want to be guaranteed that they can live as Myanmar citizens. They also need assurance of safety, restoration of full and equal citizenship rights, and reintegration into the Burmese society while being allowed to retain their own ethnic identity and culture.  

Without greater clarity on objectives and intended impacts, and without addressing the intentions let us not equate this as a gesture of kindness, empathy or as anything done “for” the Rohingya Muslims.

Fathima Shirin is an architecture graduate from Srinivas School of Architecture, Karnataka. Shirin writes on architecture, development and culture.

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