Land - the source of Burmese troublesRecent Rohingya crisis has chiefly been examined as a byproduct of religious sectarianism and ethnic hostility. With main international focus concentrated around the Rohingya’s status as religious and ethnic minority subjected to “cleansing”, other motivations behind the crisis have been duly ignored. Economic and business interests of the Myanmar government have been one of these overlooked factors that ultimately climaxed in the disaster and the government’s ensuing non-interventionism. 

When analyzing the business motivations behind the Rohingya crisis, the foremost things to shed light on are the land reforms and illegal grabs conducted during the last 2 decades. To put into context, although in many parts of developed and developing world the land may not be as problematic an issue, in Myanmar, whose population is 70% rural and thus, heavily dependent on agricultural land, it has been a highly contentious concern. Furthermore, increase in the foreign investment, excavation of natural resources, construction of infrastructure, military base expansions, and development of various projects have driven the demand for land to even higher magnitudes.

After the country’s first opening to foreign investors in 1988, the Burmese government began to clear the land and resettle its inhabitants to attract further capital flow. The resettlement process, however, was largely performed by military usually through coercion while the compensations provided by the government have been insufficient even to maintain basic standards of living1. Buddhists and Muslims alike were subject to this involuntary relocation process, which should reassert that the motives behind Rohingya downfall are far from being merely religious. Despite all violent and resolute attempts of the government, foreign interest in the remained at staggering levels. The confiscated land remained chiefly unused and the previous smallholders continued to farm their land2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Directorate of Investment And Company Administration of Myanmar

 

Nevertheless, the 2010 elections changed the atmosphere of the country: newly-elected civilian government claimed to be a harbinger of transition from military rule to a democratic system. The government introduced its political agenda which dictated that to achieve economic success it is imperative to attract as many foreign investors as possible. To further remove the insecurities obscuring the way of foreign investors, the government decided to enact two new laws in 2012—the Farmland Bill and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law—which stipulate that any unused land can be claimed and utilized by willing individuals. This piece of law also negated The 1963 Peasant Law whereby the rights of smallholders to the land was protected by constitution since the socialist era. Not surprisingly, between 2010 and 2013, the land allocated to large projects grew by 170%, with 7,000 hectares from Rohingya’s land being appropriated to rural development projects3

The unstopping confiscation of lands executed through muscle power and violence of the military obviously lead to protests on the farmers’ side.  As tensions rose, the parliament established The Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission (PLIC) to demonstrate government’s steps towards transparency, to investigate the “land grab” cases, and to propose remedial measures. The Commission disclosed 4 of its reports that detail the land confiscation complaints and main actors behind them. Although the dataset is considered incomplete due to its failure to provide more detailed information4, some analysis that it yields can be rather valuable in evaluating the core causes of the land confiscation problems. 

The first thing to notice is the actors behind the land seizures. As seen from the table below,the main drivers of the confiscation have been military and various infrastructure development projects. Although the development projects account for more than one-thirds of confiscated land and might produce some sort of economic recovery, the majority (65%) of the land detained was concentrated in the hands of military, which once again demonstrates that even after the arrival of pro-democratic government, the military has been able to hold its grip firm on the national affairs. Also, it is worth mentioning that there have been a considerable number of complaints (14,756) filed by the 18th report of the Commission (not shown)5, which reflects the mass dissatisfaction that the confiscation has caused. The main category of confiscated land, as indicated in figure 2, is farmlands accounting for about 80%, which reveals that the group most suffering from the seizures has been rural farmer. 

 

Figure 1. Summary of aggregate data released as stated in reports 1 to 4 of the PLIC6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. The category of Land Confiscated7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

These past behaviors demonstrated by the Burmese powers have a lot to say about recent Rohingya breakdowns. Since August, about 300,000 Muslims have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh  after witnessing a range of misanthropy from the Burmese military ranging from beheadings and mass slaughters, to arson and razing of villages, intended to ensure the irreversibility of emigration.And not surprisingly, only recently, the Burmese government has appropriated 1,268,077 hectares of Rohingya land to corporate rural development. Yet, the focus of the world has been solemnly concentrated on Buddhist extremism and ethnic controversies. From a realpolitik perspective, a land-thirsty government may view this human rights crisis as an “economic opportunity”, especially, if Buddhist monks seem to gravitate all the international criticism. Maybe, answers to the Aung San Suu Kyi’s mysterious silence need to be sought in the business interests of her government.

 

 

References:

1. OECD (2014), OECD Investment Policy Reviews: Myanmar 2014, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264206441-en

2. Online, Asia Time. Asia Times Online :: Land grabbing as big business in Myanmar. Accessed September 22, 2017. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/SEA-01-080313.html.

3. Sassen, Saskia. "Is Rohingya persecution caused by business interests rather than religion?" The Guardian. January 04, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jan/04/is-rohingya-persecution-caused-by-business-interests-rather-than-religion.

4. San Thein, PyaeSone and Diepart, J.-C. (2017). Transparency Under Scrutiny. Information disclosure by the Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission in Myanmar. MRLG Case Study Series #1. Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance.

5. San Thein, PyaeSone and Diepart, J.-C. (2017). Transparency Under Scrutiny. Information disclosure by the Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission in Myanmar. MRLG Case Study Series #1. Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance.pg2.

6.  The table is taken from San Thein, PyaeSone and Diepart, J.-C. (2017). Transparency Under Scrutiny. Information disclosure by the Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission in Myanmar. MRLG Case Study Series #1. Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance.pg3.

7. The table is taken from San Thein, PyaeSone and Diepart, J.-C. (2017). Transparency Under Scrutiny. Information disclosure by the Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission in Myanmar. MRLG Case Study Series #1. Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance.pg5.

8. CUMMING-BRUCE, NICK. "Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar Is ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ U.N. Rights Chief Says." The New York Times. September 11, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/11/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-ethnic-cleansing.html.

9. Sassen, Saskia. "Is Rohingya persecution caused by business interests rather than religion?" The Guardian. January 04, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jan/04/is-rohingya-persecution-caused-by-business-interests-rather-than-religion. 

 

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