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Torched Ro­hingya vil­lages have been bull­dozed as part of a de­vel­op­ment ef­fort tar­get­ing poverty

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - This story was sup­ported by a grant from the Pulitzer Cen­ter on Cri­sis Re­port­ing. BY TI­MOTHY MCLAUGH­LIN IN RANGOON

pump­ing mil­lions into re­build­ing Rakhine state, but crit­ics say the plan does not ad­dress root causes of vi­o­lence against Ro­hingya Mus­lims.

Scenes of the vi­o­lent mil­i­tary crack­down in Burma’s Rakhine state, a restive area that for decades has been the site of eth­nic strife, have be­come fa­mil­iar since the vi­o­lence erupted in Au­gust: plumes of smoke ris­ing in the dis­tance, thou­sands of Ro­hingya Mus­lims es­cap­ing to Bangladesh on foot, en­tire vil­lages stand­ing empty.

Now the Burmese gov­ern­ment is hop­ing to paint a dif­fer­ent pic­ture.

Un­der de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the gov­ern­ment has pushed the na­tion’s most pow­er­ful busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, many of them pre­vi­ously un­der U.S. sanc­tions, to pump mil­lions of dol­lars into in­fra­struc­ture projects, and tapped oth­ers to start Rakhine­fo­cused busi­nesses, all while so­lic­it­ing in­ter­na­tional donors.

But ob­servers say these plans are fraught and likely to have few ben­e­fits for the Ro­hingya, nearly 700,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh and who con­tinue to cross the bor­der even as prepa­ra­tions are un­der­way for their re­turn to Burma, which is also known as Myan­mar. The ef­forts also have been in­suf­fi­cient in pla­cat­ing eth­nic Rakhine Bud­dhists, who are deeply dis­trust­ful of the gov­ern­ment’s plans.

The de­vel­op­ment push re­flects the po­si­tion of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments that the vi­o­lence in Rakhine, which the United States and United Na­tions have la­beled eth­nic cleans­ing, is caused by a lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity.

“From our point of view, the is­sue in Rakhine is very much re­lated to poverty,” said Ye Min Aung, the vice chair­man of Burma’s cham­ber of com­merce, who has been asked by the gov­ern­ment to launch a rice busi­ness in Rakhine. “That is the very root cause of the prob­lems.”

Busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives such as him hope to re­turn Rakhine state to its “for­mer glo­ries,” he said.

The re­build­ing ef­forts are led by the Union En­ter­prise for Hu­man­i­tar­ian As­sis­tance, Re­set­tle­ment and De­vel­op­ment in Rakhine (UEHRD), a group formed in Oc­to­ber. Suu Kyi, who chairs the com­mit­tee, said it aims to build a “peace­ful and de­vel­oped Rakhine state.”

Crit­ics say the gov­ern­ment’s de­vel­op­ment agenda is pre­ma­ture and dodges the is­sues of dis­crim­i­na­tion, state­less­ness and vi­o­lence faced by the Ro­hingya for gen­er­a­tions. Ques­tions re­main over whether the Ro­hingya, who be­fore flee­ing faced se­vere con­straints on their move­ment, would ben­e­fit from in­fra­struc­ture such as roads, which they might be barred from ac­cess­ing.

“The UEHRD was formed to di­vert at­ten­tion from vi­o­lent eth­nic cleans­ing,” said David Mathieson, an in­de­pen­dent an­a­lyst in Rangoon. “Task­ing cronies to con­struct Potemkin vil­lages won’t wash away the stain of mass crimes. The gov­ern­ment is ei­ther re­ceiv­ing very bad ad­vice and be­lieves this re­con­struc­tion will work, or it’s a cyn­i­cal ploy to pre­tend the vi­o­lence was sim­ply a bad dream.”

The torched Ro­hingya vil­lages have been bull­dozed as part of the de­vel­op­ment and in­vest­ment push, lead­ing to out­cries from the United Na­tions that Burma is try­ing to cover up atroc­i­ties.

In a re­port re­leased Mon­day, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said at least three new se­cu­rity force bases are un­der con­struc­tion in the north of Rakhine, cit­ing satel­lite images and in­ter­views with Ro­hingya in Bangladesh. The sites are be­ing built by mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said it was “deeply con­cerned that the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties are re­shap­ing the re­gion so as to ac­com­mo­date more se­cu­rity forces and more non-Ro­hingya vil­lagers, at the ex­pense of homes, agri­cul­tural lands and vil­lages where Ro­hingya have lived and farmed for gen­er­a­tions.”

Aung Tun Thet, the UEHRD’s chief co­or­di­na­tor, dis­missed con­cerns raised by Hu­man Rights Watch and echoed last week by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein, the U.N. high com­mis­sioner for hu­man rights.

“As far as our in­ten­tion, it was not to clear up any­thing,” Aung Tun Thet said. “It was just merely to en­sure that when the build­ings are be­ing built there is clear grounds on which the build­ings can be con­structed.”

With two repa­tri­a­tion cen­ters com­pleted, Burma is “ready to re­ceive them,” he said of the Ro­hingya. Bangladesh and Burma signed a repa­tri­a­tion agree­ment in Jan­uary, but no Ro­hingya have re­turned, as the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the deal has stalled.

To help carry out its am­bi­tious de­vel­op­ment plans, the gov­ern­ment tapped the pri­vate sec­tor, in­clud­ing a hand­ful of the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, some of whom had been sanc­tioned by the U.S. gov­ern­ment for their re­la­tion­ships to the for­mer mil­i­tary regime.

These eco­nomic strong­men were mar­shaled un­der the pre­vi­ous junta for projects such as the con­struc­tion of the cap­i­tal, Naypyi­daw, and to bro­ker arms deals, of­ten in re­turn for lu­cra­tive con­tracts and busi­ness deals. This time, some of those in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment plans have grown re­sent­ful of the ex­pen­sive projects.

Groups tapped to re­build the state in­clude the Asia World Foun­da­tion, the phil­an­thropic arm of Asia World, a con­glom­er­ate run by Steven Law, the son of a heroin king­pin. The com­pany is con­struct­ing a 50-mile road through Rakhine, ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

Law, who was branded a “top crony” of the pre­vi­ous rul­ing junta in a leaked U.S. diplo­matic ca­ble, was re­moved from the black­list when the United States eased sanc­tions against Burma in 2016.

The Asia World Foun­da­tion did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Other for­merly sanc­tioned ty­coons who have con­trib­uted in­clude prop­erty de­vel­op­ers Khin Shwe and Zaw Zaw, whose busi­ness in­ter­ests range from bank­ing to hos­pi­tal­ity and who trav­eled with Suu Kyi to Rakhine in Novem­ber.

Khin Shwe de­clined to com­ment. Zaw Zaw did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

A con­sul­tant on Burma in­vest­ment fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the is­sue, said that some of the busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives were un­happy with be­ing asked to con­trib­ute money and re­sources.

“Myan­mar’s busi­ness ty­coons were sum­moned up to Naypyi­daw and were strongly urged — though some saw no choice — to con­trib­ute to a fund to de­velop Rakhine state,” the con­sul­tant said. “There was lit­tle in the way of de­tails or clar­ity as to what the fund would do. And it smacked of the junta days of be­ing sum­moned to do some wacky project, but this time, without con­ces­sions.”

For the eth­nic Rakhine Bud­dhists, who, it ap­pears, will be the ma­jor ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the de­vel­op­ment push, the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts are in­suf­fi­cient and be­ing im­ple­mented without enough in­put from the Rakhine com­mu­nity, they say.

“The gov­ern­ment wants to show the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity how they are pre­par­ing things for the Ben­galis, not for us [Rakhines],” said Soe Naing, a mem­ber of the Rakhine So­cial Net­work, a col­lec­tion of ac­tivist groups, us­ing a term that im­plies that the Ro­hingya are from Bangladesh. “The gov­ern­ment is do­ing one-sided things for the Ben­galis, not for the Rakhine peo­ple.”


TOP: An Oc­to­ber 2017 view of the re­mains of burned vil­lages near Maung­daw, in the north of Rakhine state. ABOVE: Work­ers near a new gov­ern­ment-built “re­ceiv­ing cen­ter” for Ro­hingya who fled to Bangladesh and want to re­turn. Burmese busi­ness ty­coons, some of whom had faced U.S. sanc­tions for their ties to the for­mer regime, have been tapped to con­trib­ute to the Rakhine de­vel­op­ment push.

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