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Water grabs and the displacement of the Rohingya from Rakhine state in Myanmar

CTV reports, “Hundreds [more accurately thousands] of people gathered in Toronto’s Queen’s Park on Saturday [September 16] to protest the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. Roughly 40 per cent of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population — some 400,000 people — have sought refuge in Bangladesh in recent weeks, fleeing violence widely blamed on Myanmar’s military that has seen entire villages razed and countless people killed. The United Nations has called the longstanding crisis in Buddhist-majority Myanmar a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.” Photo by Sid Lacombe.

In late-2016, Reuters reported on “the systematic confiscation of land [in Myanmar] from farmers by the army and the placing of that land in the hands of crony companies close to the military junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century.” That article noted, “The vast majority [of the three to five million acres of land] was taken in the 1990s and early 2000s, amid a military-led transition from socialism to a market-driven economy.”

An article n Quartz by three University of Newcastle-based writers further explains, “Land has often been acquired for ‘development’ projects, including military base expansions, natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agriculture projects, infrastructure, and tourism. …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.”

That article notes, “In Rakhine State, Chinese and Indian interests [revolve] principally around the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the region. …Among numerous development projects, a transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company connecting Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China, [that] began operations in September 2013. The wider efforts to take Myanmar oil and gas from the Shwe gas field [in the Rakhine offshore basin] to Guangzhou, China, are well documented.”

Earlier this year, New York-based Columbia University professor Saskia Sassen wrote in The Guardian, “The world’s [media] coverage of [the sharply escalating persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine by the Myanmar army] has focused entirely on the religious/ethnic aspect [but] my research leads me to argue that [this] might be only part of what explains this forced displacement.”

She says, “The past two decades have seen a massive worldwide rise of corporate acquisitions of land for mining, timber, agriculture and water. …We must ask whether the sharpened persecution of the Rohingya (and other minority groups) might be partly generated by military-economic interests, rather than by mostly religious/ethnic issues.”

And she highlights, “Myanmar has become a last Asian frontier for our current modes of development – plantation agriculture, mining, and water extraction. …Seen from this angle, persecution of the Rohingya has at least two functions, even if unplanned. Expelling them from their land is a way of freeing up land and water.”

This past April, our ally the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute published an article by Khun Oo of the Pa-O Youth Organisation who wrote, “The [National League of Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi that took office in March-April 2016] keeps saying land is important and ‘the public is power’, but they act in the opposite way. …The current peace process has not brought peace for farmers. Instead, it is a new era of conflict for them, because the land is grabbed and controlled by the military, the government and the investors with links to them, who do not care about the land [and] just as a way to make profits and to build their power to keep it.”

Now, the Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh face another crisis related to water.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bangladesh, says, “There are acute shortages of everything, most critically shelter, food and clean water. Conditions on the ground place children at high risk of water-borne disease. We have a monumental task ahead of us to protect these extremely vulnerable children.”

The UN estimates 240,000 children are among the 400,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar since late August.