Rohingya crisis

Road to ruin

The Rohingya crisis has descended into chaos in recent months, but the bloodshed has its roots in the less talked about marginalisation of Rakhine State

Sean Gleeson
December 8, 2017
Road to ruin

The Rohingya crisis has descended into chaos in recent months, but the bloodshed has its roots in the less talked about marginalisation of Rakhine State

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State since the beginning of a security crackdown in late August 2017. More than 40,000 unaccompanied children have been documented in the overburdened and disease-prone refugee camps across the border in southern Bangladesh, raising fears that thousands of civilians have been killed in the violence that followed. Rohingya women have provided human rights investigators with harrowing accounts of gang rapes at the hands of the Myanmar military and the razing of hundreds of villages by paramilitary groups.

In November 2017, the military’s True News Information Team announced that an internal review of the crackdown had found its soldiers had conducted themselves lawfully, while the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi – until this crisis one of the world’s foremost human rights icons – has bristled at any expression of international reproach. Domestically, both institutions have enjoyed the overwhelming, if not ubiquitous, support of the public.

At the centre of this intractable mess sits the state’s majority population, the eponymous Rakhine. Locked in an interdependent yet antagonistic relationship with the Rohingya for decades, local political leaders have offered unwavering support to every attempt to restrict Rohingya rights, while young ethnic Rakhine men have participated in the campaign to drive them from their homes.

In the aftermath of the attacks by Rohingya militants that precipitated the current wave of violence, some 25,000 Rakhine and other minority groups were displaced to other parts of the state. Their plight has been referenced by Aung San Suu Kyi and her government in the time since, in a largely fruitless effort to rebut international criticism by portraying the crisis as one that has wrought havoc on all communities across ethnic lines. But aside from their use as political props, the Buddhist Rakhine have been largely invisible in discussion of the violence.

Muslim man carries goods inside a market in Rakhine State Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe

Even before August, reflecting the perspectives of the Rakhine people has been a fraught endeavour. The military has maintained tight restrictions on access to the state’s north, barring occasional stage-managed and rigidly chaperoned media trips. An atmosphere of febrile resentment permeates Sittwe, the state’s immiserated capital, where journalists and humanitarian workers are regularly greeted with hostility and intimidation.

This community – subjugated by distant authorities, deeply resentful of its Muslim minority and suspicious of outsiders – has been deeply complicit in successive attempts to drive the Rohingya from their homes. However remote the prospects for peace in the state may be, any lasting settlement to decades of segregation and violence depends on a wider recognition of their grievances.


The Rakhine people trace their history back through the Mrauk-U Kingdom, an expansive coastal empire that reigned over what is now Rakhine State for more than 350 years. The kingdom’s administrative centre, described by historian Rila Mukherjee as rivalling contemporary Lisbon and Amsterdam for its administrative and cultural sophistication, stretched at its peak into the Chittagong hills of present-day Bangladesh.

The Mrauk-U empire’s centrality to the Rakhine identity is rivalled only by the desperation permeating the events that followed its collapse. At the close of the 18th century, the kingdom was brutally annexed by the Konbaung Dynasty, the last royal house of Burma, with many of its inhabitants taken prisoner and dispatched to other parts of the country. Forty years later, it was subjugated by the British in the first of three wars that by the end of the 19th century had incorporated all of present-day Burma into the British Raj.

“Aside from their use as political props, the Buddhist Rakhine have been largely invisible in discussion of the violence”

British conquest brought the arrival into Rakhine of tens of thousands of migrant labourers from Bengal and elsewhere in the subcontinent, buttressing the existing Muslim population of the area. Simmering tensions flared during the second world war; the resulting violence entrenched distrust between the Rakhine and Muslim communities and set the tone for the decades of hostility that followed, exacerbated by Rohingya militant movements that formed in the wake of independence from the British in 1948.

As the rest of Myanmar was driven into extreme poverty after 50 years of economic mismanagement under military rule, the local experience in Rakhine was one of utter neglect by national authorities. Data from the 2014 census, which did not enumerate the Rohingya population after government objections, concluded that the state was one of the poorest jurisdictions in the country. Fewer than four in ten households have access to potable drinking water, less than a third have adequate sanitation facilities, and only one in eight are connected to the electricity grid; all three figures are around half the national average. Approximately half of the ethnic Rakhine population have no education above the sixth grade, and nearly 20% of working-age men are unemployed.

State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally in her constituency of Kawhmu township in Yangon in 2013 Photo: Nyien Chan Naing/EPA


Economic conditions on the ground have inflamed resentment and provided a fertile breeding ground for the black market economy. Alcohol abuse is rampant in some villages on the back of illegal backyard distilleries, with some civil society leaders warning of a full-blown social crisis. Drug trafficking and abuse has boomed, as the region’s largest methamphetamine production hub in Myanmar’s northeast ships cheap methamphetamine pills to the Bangladeshi market through Rakhine. Nearly 30 million pills were seized by authorities in Bangladesh last year, a 20-fold increase on 2011, and high-profile drug busts in Rakhine this year have ensnared Rakhine civilians, police officers and Buddhist monks.

“There have been arrests and seizures on both sides, with cases publicised showing involvement of some officials,” Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told Southeast Asia Globe. “The seizures we have been seeing are likely due to trafficking generally to and through Rakhine to Bangladesh, and not due to sudden cooperation or some strategic capacity improvements.”

Periodic military campaigns since the 1970s to dispossess Rohingya communities of their lands – on paper a goal in alignment with local Rakhine sentiment – have through their ineptitude had the result of heightening Rakhine antipathy toward national authorities. Beginning in the 1990s, Myanmar’s previous military junta began constructing model villages and populating them with inmates from the country’s overcrowded jails through remittance schemes in an effort to bolster the state’s Buddhist population. Conditions in the villages were so bad that many of their inhabitants soon left.

“Because these settler villages were developed on land confiscated from Rohingya it had the effect of triangulating communal tensions in Rakhine State,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within, a recent book on anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. “Rohingya were further disenfranchised, while existing impoverished Rakhine communities watched as new settlers came in and were gifted free houses, money and rations.”

Fear of their Muslim neighbours and misgivings about the national government have swung local support behind the Arakan National Party (ANP), which swept most of the state’s elected seats in the country’s 2015 election.

Oo Kyaw Thein, a lawyer who grew up in Rakhine and was involved for years in the state’s political scene, told Southeast Asia Globe that the ANP had been able to portray itself as the democratic custodian of Rakhine welfare, opting for a strident line against both the Rohingya community and the country’s political leadership in Naypyidaw. Many in the state, he added, had misgivings about the firebrand populism of its leadership and worried that the party would stoke more violence.

“They are not introducing democracy, they are introducing ultra-nationalism,” he said. “It will destroy our society.”

A family lay exhausted on the ground after fleeing across the border into Bangladesh Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


For many years, successive governments in Myanmar have sought to mitigate this local resentment through large-scale development projects in Rakhine aimed at fostering local job opportunities and improving livelihoods. These initiatives have left their own sour legacy.

Under the former junta, officials pledged to develop several hydropower projects around Sittwe, an audacious proposal that would have produced nearly 1,000 additional megawatts of power in the state and brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the electricity grid. Eight years later, the projects have effectively been mothballed, and government assurances on their future implementation have become a running joke in the local community.

Further to the south in Kyaukphyu, a China-backed special economic zone has precipitated a backlash as future land acquisitions for the project threaten to displace up to 20,000 Rakhine villagers. The managing consortium’s claims that the project will employ 103,000 people – almost the exact number of working age people in Kyaukphyu, surely not by coincidence – stretch the bounds of credulity.

In the aftermath of the latest crisis in Rakhine, development is once again the centrepiece of government policy. A government-appointed advisory commission, headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, elevated economic development almost to the level of panacea for ending communal tensions and restoring stability to the state. The mantra has been taken up by Aung San Suu Kyi, who announced a new body to oversee infrastructure projects and the establishment of labour-intensive industries in Rakhine.

But in the face of such deeply rooted divisions, stretching back generations, there is scepticism that investment alone can brook a lasting peace between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities.

“The tensions there are highly complex, and no single remedy alone can ease them,” Wade said. “Economic development needs to happen, regardless of the current situation… But that resentment is neither the product of economic neglect alone, nor will it be remedied by additional investment.”

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