Myanmar: Ethno-Resource conflict in Rakhine state?

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by Asma Masood

The Rohingya issue is seen less as a clash between religions and more of an ethnic and economic problem within Myanmar’s rapidly developing economy, according to a Times of India report. The report also quotes an investment consultant that there is competition for land and resources after the country opened its economy. He adds that the fundamental cause of tension in Rakhine is largely economic.

How have economic factors contributing to conflict in Rakhine state evolved? What impact does international aid have on the conflict? Can the conflict be bracketed as merely economic?

Storm in Rakhine’s Rice Bowl

The Rakhine people have perceived the Rohingya as competitors for land since colonial times. Rakhine peasants who had fled British annexation returned to find their lands were occupied by Rohingya rice farmers on a long-term lease basis, rented out by colonizers. The Rohingya also displayed hostility, fearing a threat to their religious identity. Another source of resource conflict in Rakhine (Arakan) state was evident in British accounts from late 19th century: “Bengalis are a frugal race, who can pay without difficulty a tax that would press very heavily on the Arakanese…. (They are) not addicted like the Arakanese to gambling, and opium smoking, and their competition is gradually ousting the Arakanese” (School of Oriental Studies 2005). The competition referred to here may have been for the well-paying administrative and military posts where the British favoured the Rohingya for aiding allied efforts against Japan. However, the Rohingya soldiers when on patrol attacked Rakhine people and villages on their path.  These incidents are juxtaposed with accounts of the Rohingya’s “hunger for land” (School of Oriental Studies 2005).

The situation reversed after Myanmar’s independence. The Rohingya became stateless and victims of violence directed from the Rakhines. Ethnic conflict also took manifestation in resource deprivation. Hence, decades of land confiscation and arbitrary taxes have left many landless. They found themselves increasingly excluded from their agricultural livelihood. Some struggle as tenants or sharecroppers. Even they have to shell out tax from meager incomes on livestock and other perceived major possessions. Peril to life and livelihood has driven many Rohingya to desert entire villages. The Times of India report states that displacement of Rohingya since Myanmar’s transformation was driven to ensure land for factories. The move is to aid the manufacturing sector. There are fears that displacement will cause shortage of farmers and impact the state’s agricultural economy. It remains to be seen if the perceived shortage can diminish tensions.

Dynamics of Rakhine state’s agricultural economy may also be conflict factors. These include a 2010 state ban on inter-state trade of cultivated rice. It led to a drop in rice prices and lower profits. Consequently the Rakhines will grow more protective of their product. This may be a factor for them refusing to sell rice to the Rohingya. The level of conflict was to such a level that a Rakhine trader was killed in 2012 for having sold rice to Rohingya.

The situation was exacerbated by forces of nature playing havoc on the economy. Cyclone Giri in 2010 destroyed large tracts of crop fields.  Ensuing shortages cause higher restrictions on Rakhine traders’ sales to the Rohingya. The storm also led to difficulties for aid agencies to supply rice for displaced Rohingya in camps. It increases their impetus to migration and thus exposure to conflict.

The factors of ethno-economic conflict have caused a spike in international aid to Rakhine state. They desire economic stability to ensure a proper investment climate for crucial projects in the region. This trend is not deemed favourable for decreasing the rhythm of conflict.

Impact of Aid on Conflict

Humanitarian agencies voice concern that the high influx of aid can indirectly fuel the Rohingya-Rakhine conflict. The separation of the Rohingya Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in aid-funded camps can result in further dividing the two communities in the long term. Moreover the desirable goal of enabling their return is less prioritized. Another issue makes reconciliation more out of reach: Ethnic Rakhines displaced by the conflict are uneasy as the higher amount of aid is directed towards Rohingya IDPs.

A Complex Conflict

The forces of economy and aid have thus shaped the Rakhine conflict to an extent. However the clash cannot be bracketed as merely one based on resources. Evidence is seen in the spreading of aggression and boycotts against other Muslim groups in Myanmar. There are isolated incidents of attacks which spark months of atrocities on each other. The 969 movement is also a case in point. Hence the conflict is clearly a resource-cum-ethnic based issue. Clarity in categorization enables the concerned agencies to approach stemming the concern. Until both root causes are addressed, the chances of resolution are dim.
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Research Paper



A Song for Arakan