Burma: Problems in Rakhine state go beyond religious violence
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Burma: Problems in Rakhine state go beyond religious violence

The media reports coming out of Burma’s Rakhine state in recent months focused predominantly on the violent flare-ups between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims and the displacements of nearly 150,00 people into overcrowded refugee camps.

While this story is an important one and must be followed, Rakhine Buddhists continue facing a slew of other problems as the Burmese government invites foreign investors to develop resource extraction projects in Rakhine state, with potentially devastating effects for the people who live there.

Although the government seems more complacent when it comes to the anti-Muslim rhetoric, Rakhine Buddhists repeatedly face persecution and tension with the government as well, especially when it comes to protests over resource extraction projects and land confiscation.

“I would say it’s a politically astute and active population for the most part,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights International and formerly of Human Rights Watch. He noted that Rakhine monks were among the first to take to the streets at the beginning of what came to be known as the Saffron Revolution.

Citizens in Rakhine (formerly known as Arakan) state have been protesting foreign development projects, not necessarily because they against the projects in and of themselves, but because of the lack of transparency and input by community members.

According to Human Rights Watch, several were arrested at a protest in Maday Island in May when hundreds of villagers gathered to voice concerns over the Shwe gas pipeline, construction of which is scheduled to begin this year. Ten protesters were arrested on the grounds that they had violated Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which stipulates that a permit is needed in order to hold a lawful demonstration. Villagers had reportedly applied twice for permits, and been denied twice.

Smith said that concerns among Rakhine villagers about development and land confiscation “pre-date the latest round of violence between Buddhists and Muslims.”

The government has demonstrated a clear interest in attracting foreign investment and developing a natural resource industry, but such development comes at a high price, especially for villagers whose livelihoods are being upended due to these projects.

“The loss of land in a country like Burma has serious repercussions,” Smith said. He said that outside the urban areas, you find largely agrarian communities, and some farmers are being compensated inadequately or not at all for their land.

A major problem is that as it stands now, there is no framework through which those in Rakhine can voice their opinions and concerns about these projects, which can have potentially adverse effects on the economic and environmental landscapes in their communities. Instead, farmers are informed by the government that a company will be starting a project and that their land will be confiscated, and told how much compensation will be given. In some cases, only a certain portion of the land is paid for or nothing is paid.

Paul Donowitz, campaigns director at Earth Rights International, said the compensation schemes are problematic because the money given to farmers typically runs out quickly, and is not enough for them to purchase new land.

In one instance, Donowitz described the digging of a trench which led to muddy build-up on farm land making it impossible for farmers to work the land. They needed heavy machinery to move the mud, which they could not afford. The companies involved refused to provide the machinery for fear it would be damaged, leaving the farmers stuck. They were compensated for one year’s worth of crops but have no means of buying sufficient land to work in the coming years.

Without another method for participating in these decisions, Rakhine villagers have little choice but to protest and express their grievances. However, with law enforcement able to arrest them under laws such as Section 18 and no apparent moves to make them part of the process, they are likely to face continuing pushback from the government.

Another issue is that when foreign companies enter the scene and start these natural resource extraction endeavors, locals don’t really benefit. The resources are used in foreign countries and many of the jobs generated go to Chinese or Indian workers, as opposed to those living in Burma.

While the Burmese government has said that future projects will be established to benefit Burma first, there is a clear financial incentive to partner with other, wealthier nations.

“The world market is going to pay for that energy at a much higher rate than the people of [Burma] are going to be able to pay” for sometime, Donowitz said.

Disheartening though it is to see decisions and deals made without the input of those who will be most deeply affected, there is reason for optimism in places such as Rakhine. With community members coming together to affect change, there may eventually be changes to the process that allows for them to have a say.

“A few years ago, there wasn’t this civil society organizing,” Donowitz said. With community-driven organizations coming together to make their voices heard, they are the ones who groups such as Earth Rights International point to for recommendations on what needs to be done in terms of transparency, compensation and participation.