As Rakhine State sinks deeper into intractable and complex conflict, the Myanmar government has seen an economic opportunity. In the same week that bloody battles between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) occurred around the main highway that links the state capital, Sittwe, and Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in the upmarket coastal resort town of Ngapali, Rakhine State, stating, “Rakhine is open for business to the world.”
The conflict in Rakhine State is showing no signs of abating. Heavy fighting around the Yangon-Sittwe Highway near the ancient temple site of Mrauk Oo occurred on Tuesday 19 February with casualties from both sides. Meanwhile the day after, Myanmar military soldiers fired indiscriminately in a village in Rathaedaung Township, killing an 18 year old woman who was shot in the face, and injuring a four year old girl. Speaking of the incident, the village administrator, U Moe Kaung, said, “I witnessed with my own eyes that Army soldiers were the only armed group shooting at the homes.” Other human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military against civilians also continue, such as arbitrary arrests of villagers and subsequent use of the Unlawful Associations Act to charge them.
Yet the government still forged ahead with Rakhine State’s first ever investment fair, sponsored by the Japanese government. Referencing the violence and conflict that Rakhine has seen in recent years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sought to promote economic development as a means to establish peace. The Secretary of the Rakhine Investment Committee, Htoo Min Thein, had a similar message, “A goal of the fair is to ensure the long-lasting peace, stability and progress in the state through investment.” This mischaracterizes the ethnic grievances that have caused the AA to fight back against the Myanmar military. It is not simply a lack of investment that means people are living in poverty despite the natural wealth of the state, but it is the plunder of Rakhine’s resources by the central government that is exploiting people and creating inequality. Meanwhile, the reason that Rohingya remain living in apartheid-conditions is not simply due to a lack of investment. It is the decades of persecution and violence inflicted upon them by Myanmar state authorities. By attempting to bring in investment projects and exploit the natural resources in Rakhine State, this will only entrench the position of powerful actors and further marginalize vulnerable local populations. The investment fair is thus a fundamental distortion of the needs of the situation on the ground and can only serve to exacerbate the current conflict.
Furthermore, it is clear that, according to the government, too many people are focusing on the crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, and people should have a more positive outlook in order to resolve the situation. If only the UN-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission – whose extensive investigation found that the Myanmar military leaders should be tried for genocide after waves of violence inflicted on the Rohingya community – would stop focusing on the negative aspects of what happened, Rakhine State could simply move forward towards peace and prosperity. This was the message from Daw Aung Suu Kyi at the fair, “For too long the international community’s attention has been focused narrowly on negative aspects related to problems in north Rakhine rather than on the panoramic picture that shows the immense potential of this state for peace and prosperity.”
For Rakhine State to develop sustainably, peace must come first. Peace must include addressing the structural conditions that have led the Rohingya to become stateless and victims of genocide, including depriving them of their freedom of movement, security, essential social services, and most importantly, citizenship. A fundamental shift in governance must also occur, one that comprises the principles of equality and federalism, particularly as regards natural resource management and address the grievances of the Rakhine. Finally, a process of accountability – essential for long-term peace and justice – for the countless victims of state-sponsored genocide must take place. Time and time again, history has shown that prioritizing economic development over sustainable peace comes at the expense of equality, peace and justice. International donors and investors must take heed.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland
By Human Rights Watch
By UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
By UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency
By Environmental Investigation Agency
By Free Burma Rangers
By Karen Human Rights Group
By Renaud Cachia, Thura Myint Lwin
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”