While the media spotlight on the Rohingya crisis has focused on religious persecution and ethnic cleansing, the strategic importance of Rakhine, the Muslim minority’s home state, has gone largely unnoticed.
Rakhine, where the Rohingya have lived for generations, is considered resource-rich but politically fragile. That fragile status quo was smashed in August last year when military operations ignited a deadly campaign against the Muslim minority. The state-sponsored violence was the latest episode in a decades-long saga of brutal oppression of the Rohingya, and succeeded in evicting more than 700,000 into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Why did the Myanmar government target the Rohingya? What are the driving forces underlying the multiple episodes of eviction? To answer these questions, we have to understand how “land grabbing” works. Land grabs are typically a collaborative effort by state agencies, multinational business and elite actors, who combine to evict smallholders or marginalised communities from land valued for its resources.
Myanmar’s civilian-led administration was working from the same textbook when it instigated violence to win control over a state boasting vital geostrategic value and natural resources.
Neighbouring countries recently began pouring money into investments in Rakhine state. In response to these new trading networks and alliances, both China and India have become interested in building mega-projects there, despite being rivals. Both countries proposed a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine: China preferred the city of Kyaukphyu while India chose Sittwe. To entice foreign countries and investors in the SEZ, land grabbing has been taking place, leading to the eviction of small landholders who practise subsistence farming. In order to boost economic growth in Myanmar, the forced displacement of Rohingya seems to be planned – it is a mechanism to create trading networks with China and India.
Apart from economic lures, Rakhine province occupies a strategically critical position in Myanmar for both China and India. Over the past few decades, China has invested significantly in Myanmar, in order to secure influence over regional politics underpinning the expansion of its trading networks.
From a strategic perspective, Myanmar is situated between South Asia and Southeast Asia. The coastal belts of Rakhine, moreover, are access points to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal for China – an opportunity to strengthen trade networks and military ties with Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. It seems that China is eyeing Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal as a defensive bulwark.
On the other hand, India’s strategy is to not only strengthen regional economic cooperation as an emerging superpower in Asia, but also develop surveillance systems for its northeastern provinces of Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim. These provinces are poorly connected to the Indian mainland and are riddled with separatist movements and insurgency, as well as sharing borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Both countries thus consider Rakhine as the “geopolitical hub” of their various political aspirations and mercantile strategies.
The eviction of Rohingya from Rakhine was a state-sponsored crime long in the planning. To accomplish this mission, Myanmar’s civilian-led administration established fresh strategic relations with Delhi and Beijing; this new alliance aims to reinforce military support to the Myanmar government. Despite the horrendous situation in Rakhine state, China and India still stand beside Myanmar. In addition to the role of these countries, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi played an extremely dubious role in allowing economic development programmes to continue in Rakhine. Accordingly, the most densely populated areas inhabited by the Rohingya were not merely cleared – a total of 362 of their villages were destroyed too, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch. Approximately 48 investment projects in the areas were meanwhile given the green light.
The forceful expulsion of the Rohingya from their ancestral homeland reflects the concept of “primitive accumulation”, which was first articulated by Karl Marx but taken up by thinkers across the political spectrum.
Primitive accumulation describes the process of proletarianisation: conversion of communal property to private property, the transformation of human relationships and the suppression of the rights of the commoners accompanied by coercive mechanisms
The current land grabbing in Rakhine can be seen through this lens – with vast swathes of farmland, coastal belts, and oil and offshore gas reserves being captured. Of course, Myanmar can propose and endorse schemes of “economic corridor” to boost its economic growth, but the ongoing persecution of Rohingya and the latter’s expulsion from Rakhine is a classic example of land grabbing motivated by political and economic conditions.
Ashrafuzzaman Khan is a PhD researcher at the School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, Ulster University.