Ethnic violence

Religion is not the only reason Rohingyas are being forced out of Myanmar

Alongside the present horrors in Myanmar, we must consider the broader political and economic context that continues to marginalise minority groups.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine, the poorest state of Myanmar. A tide of displaced people are seeking refuge from atrocities – they are fleeing both on foot and by boat to Bangladesh. It is the latest surge of displaced people, and is exacerbated by the recent activity of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that there are not other factors at play. Especially given that Myanmar is home to 135 official recognised ethnic groups (the Rohingya were removed from this list in 1982).

In analysing the recent violence, much of the western media has focused on the role of the military and the figure of the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her status as a Nobel Peace prize laureate has been widely questioned since the latest evidence of atrocities emerged.

She continues to avoid condemning the systematic violence against the Rohingya. At least the media gaze has finally shifted somewhat towards their plight.

But there remain issues that are not being explored. It is also critical to look beyond religious and ethnic differences towards other root causes of persecution, vulnerability and displacement.

We must consider vested political and economic interests as contributing factors to forced displacement in Myanmar, not just of the Rohingya people but of other minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, and the Mon.

Major ethnic groups in Myanmar. Al Jazeera
Major ethnic groups in Myanmar. Al Jazeera

Land grabbing

Land grabbing and confiscation in Myanmar is widespread. It is not a new phenomenon.

Since the 1990s, military juntas have been taking away the land of smallholders across the country, without any compensation and regardless of ethnicity or religious status.

Land has often been acquired for “development” projects, including military base expansions, natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agriculture projects, infrastructure and tourism. For example, in Kachin state the military confiscated more than 500 acres of villagers’ land to support extensive gold mining.

Development has forcibly displaced thousands of people - both internally and across borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand - or compelled them to set out by sea to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.

In 2011, Myanmar instituted economic and political reforms that led it to be dubbed “Asia’s final frontier” as it opened up to foreign investment. Shortly afterwards, in 2012, violent attacks escalated against the Rohingya in Rakhine state and, to a lesser extent, against the Muslim Karen. Meanwhile, the government of Myanmar established several laws relating to the management and distribution of farmland.

These moves were severely criticised for reinforcing the ability of large corporations to profit from land grabs. For instance, agribusiness multinationals such as POSCO Daewoo have eagerly entered the market, contracted by the government.

A regional prize

Myanmar is positioned between countries that have long eyed its resources, such as China and India. Since the 1990s, Chinese companies have exploited timber, rivers and minerals in Shan State in the North.

This led to violent armed conflicts between the military regime and armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its ethnic allies in eastern Kachin State and northern Shan State.

In Rakhine State, Chinese and Indian interests are part of broader China-India relations. These interests revolve principally around the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the region. Such projects claim to guarantee employment, transit fees and oil and gas revenues for the whole of Myanmar.

Among numerous development projects, a transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) connecting Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China, began operations in September 2013. The wider efforts to take Myanmar oil and gas from the Shwe gas field to Guangzhou, China, are well documented.

Pipeline from the Shwe gas field to China. The Shwe Gas Movement
Pipeline from the Shwe gas field to China. The Shwe Gas Movement

A parallel pipeline is also expected to send Middle East oil from the Kyaukphyu port to China. However, the neutral Advisory Commission on Rakhine State has urged the Myanmar government to carry out a comprehensive impact assessment.

In fact, the Commission recognises that pipelines put local communities at risk. There is significant local tension related to land seizures, insufficient compensation for damages, environmental degradation, and an influx of foreign workers rather than increased local employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Sittwe deep-sea port was financed and constructed by India as part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project. The aim is to connect the northeast Mizoram state in India with the Bay of Bengal.

Coastal areas of Rakhine State are clearly of strategic importance to both India and China. The government of Myanmar therefore has vested interests in clearing land to prepare for further development and to boost its already rapid economic growth.

All of this takes place within the wider context of geopolitical maneuvering. The role of Bangladesh in fuelling ethnic tensions is also hotly contested. In such power struggles, the human cost is terribly high.

Compounding the vulnerability of minorities

In Myanmar, the groups that fall victim to land grabbing have often started in an extremely vulnerable state and are left even worse off. The treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State is the highest profile example of broader expulsion that is inflicted on minorities.

When a group is marginalised and oppressed it is difficult to reduce their vulnerability and protect their rights, including their property. In the case of the Rohingya, their ability to protect their homes was decimated through the revocation of their Burmese citizenship.

Rohingya settlement near Sittwe. Thomas Johnson
Rohingya settlement near Sittwe. Thomas Johnson

Since the late 1970s around a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar to escape persecution. Tragically, they are often marginalised in their host countries.

With no country willing to take responsibility for them, they are either forced or encouraged to continuously cross borders. The techniques used to encourage this movement have trapped the Rohingya in a vulnerable state.

The tragedy of the Rohingya is part of a bigger picture which sees the oppression and displacement of minorities across Myanmar and into neighbouring countries.

The relevance and complexity of religious and ethnic issues in Myanmar are undeniable. But we cannot ignore the political and economic context and the root causes of displacement that often go undetected.

Giuseppe Forino, PhD Candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle; Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle and Thomas JohnsonPhD Candidate in Disaster Vulnerability, University of Newcastle.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.