To outside observers, the carnage inflicted on the Rohingya minority – a five-month spasm of violence and de fact ethnic cleansing ostensibly stemming from the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men – in Rakhine Province is indefensible and inexplicable. What is even less understandable to Westerners is the virtually universal closing of ranks among local and national governments, pro and anti-government Buddhist monks, junta apologists and pro-democracy activists, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, all uniting to deny the apparently undeniable fact that an old fashioned pogrom is taking place against Rohingya minority and other Muslims.
Friends of Myanmar are puzzled and dismayed that the progressives they have championed have joined forces with the country’s most reactionary forces to deny the overwhelming evidence that Rohingya – a dark-skinned Muslim ethnic minority with cultural and linguistic ties to neighboring Bangladesh – are being driven out of their homes by a campaign of intimidation, arson, and violence in 2012 that builds upon years of marginalization and demonization.
Seventy-five thousand Rohingya IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) have been herded into camps on the outskirts of the state capital, Sittwe, and other towns. In a sign of how bad things are, thousands of Rohingya are trying to flee to Bangladesh, even though they are not welcome there and their only possible refuge if they aren’t turned back are two squalid UN-run camps surrounded by a ring of miserable unsanctioned huts.
Exasperated by Myanmar denialism, Human Rights Watch published a satellite photo showing most of the Muslim quarter of a sizable town, Kyak Pyu, burned to the ground. (As is usual in these matters, nomenclature follows political inclination. The official government identifiers are Myanmar and Rakhine State. People disinclined to legitimize the regime’s terms use Burma/Arakan).
The local Rakhine government and its dominant political party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, or RNDP, have been at the forefront of the anti-Rohingya campaign, according to Rohingya advocate Nay San Lwin. Writing in Turkey’s Today Zaman, he asserted:
The tragic cruelty and the carnage of Rohingyas that occurred in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan (now known as Rakhine) state, is assumed to have been caused by Dr. Aye Maung, member of parliament and chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) because in his interview with Venus News Journal on June 14, 2012, he said, “The Rakhine state should be established in the way Israel was initially established.” That’s the dream of the Rakhine people. They want to drive out Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine (Arakan) state, their current leader Dr. Aye Maung asserted in that interview.
In the last week of last month, a RNDP statement indicated, “Bengalis must be segregated and settled in separate, temporary places so that the Rakhines and Bengalis are not able to mix together in villages and towns in Rakhine state.” “Repatriating non-citizen Bengalis to a third country in a short period of time must be discussed with the United Nations and the international community,” the statement added. The RNDP also issued a statement early this year against a job announcement by CARE International in Myanmar, an NGO working in Arakan state, for using the term “Rohingya.”
Local Arakanese monks have been pitching in as well, according to Democratic Voice of Burma:
A group of Arakanese monks have called for Rohingya “sympathizers” to be targeted and exposed as “national traitors” while tensions again flare between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s westernmost state. In a document seen by DVB, the All-Arakanese Monks’ Solidarity Conference have urged locals to distribute images of anyone alleged to be supporting the stateless minority group to all townships in the region, potentially opening them up to violent attacks by nationalist extremists. Many Arakanese monks have repeatedly called on local Buddhists to sever all relations with the Rohingya community, including trade and the provision of humanitarian aid.
Another ugly message was delivered courtesy of some Rakhine Buddhist university students:
Hundreds of Buddhist university students in Sittwe in Rakhine State rallied on Wednesday against Rohingya Muslims as communal tension was at a heightened pitch in western Burma, according to news service reports. More than 800 students joined a rally to call for an end to “studying with terrorist Bengalis” and for the removal of Muslim villages on the road to the university.
In addition, the RNDP embarked on an active political and public relations campaign to reframe the pogrom as “sectarian clashes” in order to present its supporters – the rioters – as the injured party, especially if foreign diplomats show up to commiserate over the plight of the Rohingya. In June, the Secretary General of the RNDP complained:
Q : We have knowledge that UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar Mr. Vijay Nambiar visited the town of Sittwe through Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships of Rakhine state and head back straight to Yangon. However, during his trip, he did not meet the representatives of ethnic Rakhine. What’s your say on this?
A: I would so much like to talk about this issue…We feel highly upset about Mr. Nambiar’s failure to meet [Rakhine ethnic representatives] despite coming to Rakhine state. That makes us wonder about the stance of UN. There was no press conference either. And that is purely a totally unpleasant situation. Therefore it makes us wonder the true motives of Mr. Nambia, is he being bias against those of ethnic Rakhine? So, by looking at this event, it’s obvious that there are people who are pulling the strings from behind; otherwise, there is no reason for such a high ranking diplomat like him to dare not to call for a press conference. For an organization like UN, which is the de-facto representative of world’s democratic societies, such a big failure is a heinous diplomatic mistake.
When the Organization for Islamic Cooperation proposed setting up a humanitarian liaison office in the state capital of Sittwe, local “offended Buddhist” women marched through the streets of the state capital, wearing mass produced T-shirts and brandishing mass-produced banners.
That’s bad enough. But there was more. The national government of Thein Sein endorsed the position of the Rakhine State government and declared that the best deal for the Rohingya would be to herd them into UN camps for their own safety and then deport them to whatever third country would take them.
At the national level, the anti-Rohingya wave was not limited to the callous, knuckle-dragging authoritarians associated with the Myanmar military junta. Buddhist monks and democracy activists piled on, excoriating the international community for daring to care about the Rohingya.
The leadership of the 8888 student democracy movement, while vigorously and commendably deploring the violence against the Rohingya, adamantly declared its disdain for the persecuted group:
Rohingya is not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all. We see that the riot happening currently in Buthedaung and Maungdaw of Arakan State is because of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called “Rohingya” and mischievous provocation of some international communities. Therefore, such interfering efforts by some powerful nations on this issue (Rohingya issue), without fully understanding the ethnic groups and other situations of Burma, will be viewed as offending the sovereignty of our nation. Genetically, culturally and linguistically Rohingya is not absolutely related to any ethnicity in Myanmar…Taking advantage of our kindness and deference, if the powerful countries forced us to take responsibility for this issue, we will never accept it. Concerning with the sovereignty, if we are forced to yield by any country, we, the army and democratic force will deal the issue together as a national issue.
From the Western liberal perspective, the worst was the studied disdain of Aung San Suu Kyi- whose official title in the Western press appears to be “democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi- for the plight of the Rohingya. When pressed on the issue at Harvard University, she went Ice Queen, according to Global Post:
The forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School Thursday evening was little shy of a lovefest…Until someone mentioned the “R” word. Thanking Suu Kyi for “being our inspiration,” a student from Thailand said: “You have been quite reluctant to speak up against the human-rights violations in Rakhine State against the Rohingya…Can you explain why you have been so reluctant?” The mood in the room suddenly shifted. Suu Kyi’s tone and expression changed. With an edge in her voice, she answered: “You must not forget that there have been human-rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It’s not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human rights violations.”
A few observations here. First, the central government is definitely along for the anti-Rohingya ride. It (together with Aung San Suu Kyi) has adopted the morally neutral “sectarian clashes” narrative, with the implication that the Rohingya are equally at fault for any violence, a framing that official Chinese agencies – the PRC, of course, is a key political backer for the current regime – have carefully reproduced in their coverage.
In July, the local Arakanese news agency carried a report on a delegation of movie stars – again, wearing the mass-produced T-shirts that seem to be an integral part of political expression in these matters – on a charitable mission to comfort refugees created by the crisis … the ethnic Rakhines displaced by the crisis, not the Rohingya. As the report makes clear, the group, organized by the chairman of the Myanmar Motion Picture Association, concentrated its efforts on Buddhist refugees sheltering at religious establishments in the capital of Sittwe:
“I was very glad and broke into tears when I saw the stars I love coming to offer their aid to us,” said a female refugee who is sheltering in the camp of Ray Kyaw Thu Monastery in Sittwe. The celebrity team reportedly visited the camps of Ray Kyaw Thu Monastery, Sinkuland Ward, Rwa Gree Mrauk Primary School, Padone Ma Aung Myay Monastery, Buddhawmaw Monastery, Su Taung Pyi Monastery, Mingan Middle School, and Mingan Chapel in Sittwe, and have made their respective donations to the refugees taking shelter in those camps.
Anti-Rohingya bigotry has been a mainstay of the dictatorship for decades. Famously, the regime denied citizenship for the Rohingya in 1982, stigmatizing them as non-Burmese, and laying much of the foundation for their current misery. The junta has been accused of knowingly inciting anti-Rohingya violence if and when government misbehavior might expose it to the anger of the monks. However, morally bankrupt divide and rule tactics by the military junta are not the full story.
The regime draws on a considerable and easily tapped reservoir of anti-Rohingya feeling in Burmese society, feeling that has perhaps been exacerbated by the overtly racialist Greater Burma propaganda of the government but is to a certain extent inherent in the religious and social worldview of many politically-engaged Burmese. Myanmar is, of course, predominantly Buddhist. 94% Buddhist, if recent estimates are accurate.
Myanmar is Theravada Buddhist, as are Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Theravada Buddhism is a doctrinally conservative Buddhism very close to the original practice laid out by Gautama Buddha. It is predicated upon a Buddhist domination of a secular polity under the rule of a king who acts as defender and promoter of the faith. Back in the day, the main priority of the Theravada Buddhist state was to establish the social and financial infrastructure that would enable Buddhist monks to achieve enlightenment.
Theravada Buddhism was devastated by the arrival of Western imperialism in Asia, especially by the incorporation of South Asian states into colonial regimes and the extinction or sidelining of the Buddhist kings. Sri Lanka and Burma got rolled into British India; Laos and Cambodia became part of the French system. Even Thailand, which retained its nominal independence, was forced to confront the challenge to its legitimacy and authority posed by Western power and Christian proselytizing.
Theravada Buddhism, like other traditional religions of Asia, upped its game in response to the imperial challenge. Theorists developed a vision of Theravada Buddhism as a mechanism for national renewal- and national resistance against British rule. The movement started in Sri Lanka as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association – the YMBA. The name, though it sounds quaint, was both a direct challenge to the YMCA, an important agent of Christian penetration among Sri Lanka’s youth and professional classes – and an adoption (and implicit endorsement) of its methods.
There are interesting parallels between the Theravada renaissance and the 19th century movements to redefine Indian Islam- which was also experiencing severe stress as national integration threatened to redefine Indian Muslims as a national minority, instead of the holder of various local majorities. The remorseless transformation of Indian society led, on the political level, to the eventual partition of the British Raj into India and East and West Pakistan.
On the religious level, it led to the development of a more militant, politically-engaged brand of Indian Islam through the rise of the Deoband school. The Deoband madrassah prepared Indian Muslims for an existential struggle against the forces of Westernization and Hindu dominance by emphasizing Islamic renewal, resistance, doctrinal rigor, and intolerance for the accommodating and syncretist brand of Sufi Islamic observance practiced in many areas of the Indian subcontinent.
In the 20th century, the Deoband school also inspired a conservative Islamic backlash against foreign penetration into Muslim central Asia; we know these arch-conservatives (actually Islamic neo-fundamentalists) as the Taliban. “Myanmar’s Buddhist Taliban” is an unwelcome framing, and certainly unfair when contrasting the intensity of violence practiced or condoned by the two groups.
However, it should be noted that religiously-supported Buddhist chauvinism was a key element in the estrangement between Sri Lanka’s dominant Buddhist population and its Tamil minority. The political conflict climaxed in a virtual war of annihilation successfully carried out by the Sri Lankan government (with significant Chinese military and financial support) against the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lankan “Buddhist fundamentalism” – a quest for national renaissance through a rededication to Buddhist practice and goals- has inspired Burma as well.
Burmese Buddhism, traditionally locked into a solipsistic quest for personal enlightenment, has been repurposed as a political and social movement, drawing justification from the exalted (healing society as an exercise in compassion) and pragmatic (poor societies lack the ability to give suitable alms to Buddhist monks, thereby endangering the Buddhist project). This led to the emergence of a class of politically active monks with immense social prestige, whose leaders the Myanmar dictatorship has desperately and largely unsuccessfully labored to co-opt. It also encouraged the emergence of a uniquely Myanmar Buddhist bigot, for whom the continued presence of the Rohingya is an affront to the Buddhist purity and cultural unity of the nation. The existence of an ineffectual Rohingya liberation movement among exiles in Bangladesh adds fuel to the fire.
The most conspicuous Buddhist voice in the national (as opposed to Rakhine State) protests against the OIC initiative is a monk, U Wirathu, with a history of imprisonment (providing him with activist credibility) and anti-Muslim agitation. In September, he led a 5,000-person march in Yongyon supporting President Thein Sein’s proposal to either hand over the Rohingya to the UN Human Rights Commissioner or deport them to any third country that would have them.
On the occasion of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, Wirathu posted a video which, according to the translation by a hostile party, accused the Rohingya (or, in his formulation, “the Bengalis”) of acting as a front for Islamic infiltration and destabilization of Burma, starting with an “invasive jihad war” against Rakhine with the objective of establishing an Islamic state. Wirathu also accused the Rohingya Solidarity Organization of “drugging children in order to get them to fight” and “disguising themselves as ladies.” Perhaps this reflects Wirathu’s goofball worldview; more likely it is an attempt to explain away the child and female casualties of the pogrom. He concluded by declaring that it is imperative to protect the Rakhine State in order to protect the Myanmar motherland. Al Jazeera’s Wayne Thay speculated that Wirathu has assumed the role of pro-government provocateur on the Rohingya issue.
Perhaps the monk’s outlook was remolded by the 10 years he spent in prison and his crude propaganda is orchestrated by his minders in the security apparatus. Certainly, the “protect the Rakhine” meme – a perverse inversion of the actual anti-Rohingya pogrom – is a framing with which the central government, religious establishment, and democratic movement all feel comfortable.
International NGOs calling for relief and protection of the Rohingya have, to their distress, been targeted with astounding vitriol by the very activists they championed for decades of pro-democracy struggle. (It also appears that the NGOs, having comfortably occupied the role of democracy’s respected agents inside Burma, are also ill-equipped to deal with the chauvinistic, anti-imperialist spirit that is at the core of Buddhist fundamentalist dissent and which has been liberated by the recent political reforms)
Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK wrote of his dismay and bewilderment at the attacks his organization has endured for trying to call attention to the Rohingya situation:
Another reason we are attacked over Rohingya issues is that we have a Muslim staff member. From the moment Wai Hnin Pwint Thon joined Burma Campaign UK, messages started to be left on our Facebook Page by people from Burma, attacking her because she is a Muslim. Lies posted and spread about Wai Hnin Pwint Thon include that she is secretly Rohingya (she isn’t), she has been accused of working with Rohingya Solidarity Organization (she doesn’t), of wanting to create a Caliphate in Burma (she doesn’t), of taking money from Rohingya (she hasn’t), and even that she has had several children with different Rohingya men (she hasn’t). She has faced not just lies but abuse, much of it sexual in nature…
Around a year ago, I tried to engage Dr. Aye Chan in a conversation on why he and his followers spent much more time criticizing Rohingya than they did the dictatorship. Aye Chan was incapable of having the discussion without repeatedly making personal attacks. The email conversation was forwarded to various email groups, and my in-box was flooded with abusive emails. When I asked Aye Chan to ask his supporters not to use personal abuse and threats, and to condemn those who do, he repeatedly refused to do so. When leaders not only fail to condemn abusive and personal attacks, but even make personal attacks themselves, their followers will copy their behavior.
Dr. Aye Chan is a very well-known figure in the Myankar democracy movement, and also an Arakanese. Previously imprisoned by the junta as a dissident, he is now welcome because his scholarship and advocacy provide a veneer of legitimacy to anti-Rohingya sentiment. In September, he attended a conference on “National Identity and Citizenship in 21st Century Myanmar” in Yangon and was pointedly greeted at the airport by an Arakanese delegation. According to the Arakanese news agency:
Arakanese were said to have held placards and banners that included one which read “Dr. Aye Chan, Save the Land of Arakan” while welcoming him at the airport.
News coverage approvingly noted his book on the Rohingya, Virus Influx. The evidence is overwhelming that anti-Rohingya sentiment permeates the warp and weft of Burmese society and dominates both government and anti-government institutions at local and national levels. Aung San Suu Kyi is obviously uncomfortable pushing back against this bigotry, perhaps because of shared religious values (she abandoned the clear eyed multi-ethnic socialist politics of her late father for an airy brand of Buddhism during her incarceration) and because the support of Buddhist monks significantly leverages her political power and reach inside Burma.
But the savage pogroms of this year beg the question Why Now?, a question that Rohingya diaspora spokesman Dr. Waqar Uddin himself could only answer with sputtered confusion on an Al Jazeera interview show, despite the determined effort by the anchor to elicit a coherent response. And why has Aung San Suu Kyi imperiled her international reputation – a key weapon in the arsenal of Burmese democracy – by refusing to tap her admittedly shallow reserves of pro-Rohingya compassion?
The answer may be found in by understanding the dynamics behind pogroms- the carnivals of violence against despised minorities that, in Western literature, are most closely associated with the persecution of Jews in Europe. A detailed analysis of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Odessa in 1905 concluded it did not ignite “spontaneously.” It was orchestrated- and its excesses were condoned or encouraged in a time of significant political flux and heightened anxiety a society preconditioned towards violence against Jews. In 1905 Odessa, the political disorder attending reforms promulgated by Tsar Nicholas was blamed on Jewish agitation, and a pogrom incited among the impoverished and enthusiastically anti-Semitic populace in order to advance a particular political agenda.
Robert Weinberg’s analysis, “The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study” in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D Klier and Shlomo Lambroza can, with little imagination, be applied to the pogrom against the Rohingya in Burma and the accusations of “jihadi invasion” (with the observation that the ostensible “threat” posed by the beleaguered Rohingya is more in line with the manufactured hysterics of 1930s Germany than the acute crisis of the Tsarist order in 1905):
How then are we to explain the outbreak of the pogrom? Okhrana [secret police] chief Bobrov, for example, concluded that Jews were responsible for provoking pogromist attacks because they were spearheading a revolutionary attack on the autocracy in an effort to establish their “own tsardom.” According to the testimony of L D Teplitskii, an ensign in the army, as early as 15 and 16 October policemen were proposing to use force against Jews. As one policeman told Teplitskii, “Jews want freedom – well, we’ll kill two or three thousand. Then they’ll know what freedom is.” In working-class neighborhoods policemen and pogromist agitators went from door to door, spreading rumors that Jews were slaughtering Russian families and urging Russian residents to repel the Jews with force…An army captain informed Kuzminskii that a policeman had told him that his superiors had given their permission for three days of violence because Jews had destroyed the Tsar’s portrait in the city council.
Certainly this is a period of significant political flux in Myanmar. Eager to shed the Chinese incubus and attract Western interest and investment, the Myanmar regime has opted for reconciliation with pro-democracy forces, a pro-Western tilt, and elections for parliament in 2015.
It is widely expected that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will do quite well and the USDP, the junta’s political front, will have its work cut out for it if it hopes to gain even a third of the contested seats- which, when combined with the 25% of seats reserved for the military, would still give it the upper hand in the parliament. It has been suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to stand up for the Rohingya reflects a calculation that her standing among the bigoted Burmese electorate will suffer if she sympathizes with the despised minority.
However, her immense reserves of political capital inside Myanmar argue that she could retain her standing and reputation despite a statement on behalf of the Rohingya. Her dogged refusal to yield on the issue – even as her international reputation takes a hit – suggests that narrower, more tactical political considerations may be driving her response.
In a development that has considerable bearing on the Rohingya issue, democratic reforms have given rise to a plethora of local-chauvinist party in the ethnic borderlands of Burma. The non-Rohingya people of Rakhine State (who prefer to call themselves Arakanese) are a distinct, Buddhist ethnic minority of Burma, with a contentious history of demands for autonomy, federalism, or even independence from Yangyon. The party of Arakan chauvinism, the RNDP did very well in both the local elections and the general election for seats in the national parliament reserved for Arakanese both from the state and from the Arakanese diaspora in Mandalay. The Rakhine parliament is the only state parliament controlled by a party other than the USDP.
On the occasion of the 2012 election, the RNDP allied with the NLD. A party official described the USDP’s hamfisted idea of outreach: sending over the general who was previously in charge of looting the province to canvas Rakhine on behalf of the USDP.
Q: Some local villagers are saying they will lodge a complaint against Maung Oo for the sale of cooperative society-owned land while he was serving as a regional commander in Rakhine State. Do you know anything about this?
A: Yes, we know about it. This case happened in Kyaukpyu Township in Gonechein village. He looted this land while he was a regional commander here and his soldiers guarded the land. We heard that the local villagers tried to prosecute him. The people are aware and enlightened now. A regional commander can no longer do whatever he wants.
Q: The USDP party suffered a huge loss in Rakhine State.
A: By their sending a man like Maung Oo here, our Rakhine party profited. Now the USDP has a hard time getting support here. Our Rakhine people are happy because of their mistake because it made our party more popular. Even if we do don’t do anything, the Rakhine people will not support our rival party.
Judging by news reports, the USDP is trying to make up for lost ground, and also find a countermeasure to deal with a likely landslide by the NLD in the majority-Burmese heartland by reaching beyond the Irrawaddy core to the various non-Burmese but Buddhist ethnic groups that control Burma’s impoverished but resource-rich borderlands.
Since the Chairman of the RNDP, Ayu Maung appears to have made the solution of Rakhine’s Rohingya problem his first priority, perhaps the USDP calculates that, by giving a tacit green light, moral support, and propaganda and diplomatic cover from the central government to the RNDP-sponsored pogrom of the Rohingya, the foundation is being laid for a strategic alliance that will counter the NLD post-2015. However, even if the RNDP and the USDP bond over a shared commitment to human rights violations, this is not a marriage made in political heaven- not without a little financial midwifing, anyway.
An inevitable by-product of political reform is overturning the previous policy of crude exploitation and malign neglect which characterized the junta’s dealings with the border minority areas. The forestry, gemstone, and energy treasures of the borderlands were extensively if inefficiently looted by the officers of the junta, primarily to China’s benefit. Now, it is time for the USDP to woo these ripped-off minorities. Beyond the atavistic gratification of the occasional pogrom, the key issue at stake is resource sharing or what might be called “resource provincialism.”
The message was sent out, to the English-speaking world, at least, via Radio Free Asia:
Senior minister Soe Thein said President Thein Sein’s government was all for providing greater autonomy to ethnic states, where armed conflicts had raged for years, particularly under the previous military junta rule. “It is our dream, the president’s and ours, to transfer the power to [the ethnic nationalities] to govern their regions,” he told RFA’s Burmese service on Monday. “Parliament needs to amend some of the revenue sharing [laws], for instance, to increase [the ethnic states’] portion in revenue sharing, as stated in the appendix to the constitution, for their development,” said Soe Thein, who is on a US visit. Ethnic groups have long been excluded from Burma’s politics during decades of brutal military rule which came to an end in March 2011 when Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took over. Parliament is at present considering a proposal to change rules in the appendix to the country’s 2008 military-written constitution to allocate a percentage of revenue from natural resources to each of the country’s states and divisions. The proposal was made by a head of the ethnic Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.
Note the reference to the RNDP. The RNDP, through a member of the Upper House of the national Parliament, has suggested a “suitable rate or 25%” be reserved for the originating state. 25% is a huge step up from zero and, in the state of Rahkine, has the potential to pour billions of dollars per year into the state’s coffers.
That is because of the Shwe gas field, off Rahkine’s coast, is already a major supplier to Thailand. A Shwe concession developed by the PRC’s China National Petroleum Company is the cornerstone of one of China’s most highly touted energy security initiatives – the pipelines to China. When completed, probably in 2013, twinned natural gas and crude oil pipelines (the gas pipeline carrying Shwe gas, the oil pipeline to carry Middle Eastern petroleum) will cross Rahkine Province, the Shan state, and into China’s Yunnan Province, to drive the economic development of China’s southwest and, ostensibly, remove the threat of interdiction of Chinese oil shipments in the Straits of Malacca.
China has already committed to pay US$150 million in transit fees to the central government; but the big money would come from a Burmese/Rakhinese share in gas revenues. Current total revenues from exports to Thailand are north of $4 billion dollars, though where this money goes and how it is spent is apparently an awkward subject for the Burmese government. Back of the envelope, Rakhine State might be looking at revenues of $1-$2 billion per annum if it can get a sweet revenue sharing deal. That’s a nice income for Rakhine, whose total population is around 4 million people (3 million if the Rohingya aren’t counted) – half of whom live below the poverty line.
The Minister also frankly discussed the political dimension:
Soe Thein, who is a minister in Thein Sein’s office, said that ethnic-based parties should not be ignored in the national agenda. “There are not only two main parties, the USDP and the NLD; we have multiple parties, including ethnic parties and others,” he noted.
Key ethnic players in the resource game are Arakan State, the Chin, and the Mon. Of course, teak, gemstones, and opium are interesting business opportunities; but the low-lying fruit (for which Western oil companies are panting) is easily-accessible offshore energy resources in Rakhine.
If the USDP could orchestrate it, a generous revenue-sharing arrangement with the Arakanese (and the Mon, Kachin, and Chin) would relieve the USDP (and China) of their isolation in parliament and buck the generally pro-Western political, diplomatic, and economic trend inside Myanmar. Certainly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s parliamentary strategy does not involve her getting boxed in by a majority composed of USDP remnants, military officers, and obstreperous ethnic MPs.
So it is tempting to speculate that her marked unwillingness to criticize the Rohingya pogroms reflects her understanding that criticism of the human rights failings of Rakhine State would endanger her alliance with the Rakhine bloc in parliament – a bloc, moreover, that will wield disproportionate clout if and when it gets access to revenue sharing from the offshore oil and gas fields.
On the oil and gas issue, in August Aung San Suu Kyi made the rather gnomic observation that Western oil companies should avoid cooperating with Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the government oil and gas company. MOGE is notorious for parking royalty payments in overseas accounts instead of repatriating them back into Burma and acting as an unaccountable piggy bank for the military. (Aung San Suu Kyi’s concerns are persuasively summarized in a report by Arakan Oil Watch).
Nevertheless, the warning was not particularly appreciated by the foreign oil companies, who see MOGE as the only local player with the ability to get things done in country. In an interesting illustration of what happens when democracy and Western business interests collide, the Obama administration carefully finessed her concerns when it lifted sanctions so that US oil companies could charge toward the Burmese trough (subject to some special MOGE-related reporting requirements that appear rather pro-forma).
Perhaps her remark was meant to encourage Rakhine State to agitate for its own oil company, thereby starving MOGE and the army of fresh cash, and, to China’s dismay, also depriving the USDP of the economic and political leverage in Rakhine created by alliance between MOGE and foreign bidders. It is safe to say that China’s biggest priority in Myanmar, now that the Myitsone Dam took a bullet, is to make sure the gasfield and pipelines projects go smoothly, and it is looking to the USDP and greedy if not particularly friendly elements in Rakhine to protect it from a toxic combination of principled, Sinophobic, and opportunistic outrage.
CNPC is rushing ahead to complete the pipeline so that its existence will form “facts on the ground,” not a cancellable project. The pipeline is projected to be completed in 2013, probably before the World Bank has chosen the colors for the binders in its latest lavish exercise in Burmese capacity-building.
CNPC is also engaged in belated outreach to win the hearts and minds of the people impacted by the pipelines or, at least, shower money and attention on the ethnic politicians who hold the fate of the pipelines in their hands, thereby also communicating the PRC’s political priorities and expectations to the USDP and the central government. As is apparently obligatory in these cases, CNPC set up a website highlighting its “Caring for Energy, Caring for You” mutually beneficial development agenda, including contributions to local well-being such as a $10 million donation to hook up Rakhine State to the national power grid.
Expect more of the same spontaneous generosity as Burmese democracy heats up and Sinophobia – with its threats to China’s energy interests – moves closer to central stage. In any case, in Burma the road to democracy (and marginalization of China’s interest) is steep and winding. The sad case of the Rohingya indicates it may not be completely honorable, either.
This article was originally posted in Asia Times Online.