Anton Wideroth challenges the growing narrative that the Rohingya conflict is caused by a resource curse. In providing new perspective, he demands that we examine the region’s history, legacy of colonialism and military rule –– and not perpetuate further misunderstanding of the crisis.
Renewed attacks by the Arakan Army, a Buddhist insurgent group, against police stations in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar have once again turned the eyes of the world towards the problems in the region, and inevitably the plight of the Rohingya. Religion or ethnicity are often upheld as the key drivers of the Rohingya crisis. Over the past year, however, an alternative narrative explaining why many Rohingya were driven out of Rakhine State has begun to emerge. Bangladesh’s ex-President Hussain Muhammad Ershad has, for example, claimed that the forced exodus “has nothing to do with religion; it is political economy.” His claims are mirrored in some local and international media. These arguments share a key commonality – they emphasize the influential and destructive role of natural resources.
The President’s explanation is tempting and appears to be supported by social science literature. It also seems to fit neatly within the conflict patterns observed in Myanmar, and across the world. Yet, it is a gross and dangerous simplification and detrimental to solving the humanitarian catastrophe.
Paul Collier popularized the “resource curse” in the early 2000s. His argument, simply put, was that greed is a bigger driver of conflict than grievance, and that reliance on natural resources creates a rentier system devoid of government accountability. To illustrate his point, Collier turned to Liberia. The brutal and ongoing civil war in the West African country was, he argued, motivated by the endless appetite for riches and lack of governmental accountability by Charles Taylor, warlord and president of the country. This conclusion ignored the historic marginalization of native Liberians at the hands of the dominant settler class. Natural resources provided the means and incentives for war, but they did not cause it.
The resource curse runs into similar problems wherever it is applied by analysts and pundits. The concept simply fails to grasp the complex national histories and political realities of conflict.
Myanmar, like Liberia, is supposedly afflicted with the resource curse. The country is abundant in resources and plagued by a myriad of ethnic conflict. Like diamonds in the Congo, oil in Kurdistan, or timber in Liberia, jade is the paramount resource implicated in conflict in Myanmar. The jade trade contributes an estimated $31 billion per year to Myanmar’s economy, a staggering 48 percent of GDP. The immense profits incentivize the military to keep strict control and ethnic groups to fight back for what they consider is their rightful slice of the pie. The Kachin Independence Army, the central player in Myanmar’s most prolific civil war, earns substantial revenues from taxation according to the activist NGO Global Witness.
Moreover, the role of natural resources in the conflict is widely recognized within the country. A 2017 press statement by 139 local civil society organizations stated: “For decades, the resources for which the country is famed have helped incentivize and fuel fighting which has destroyed countless lives”. The importance of natural resources within the Myanmar conflict system is undeniable. But that does not mean that the resources are responsible for the long and systematic persecution of the Rohingya that has now culminated in ethnic cleansing.
Atrocities against the group are not new. The Rohingya have suffered continuously from what Syed Serajul Islam, a Bangladeshi social scientist, terms “state terrorism,” including unfair trials, torture, extrajudicial execution, intimidation, and forced labour since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. Why? The root causes lie in the country’s colonial history. The Rohingya fought with the British against the Japanese when they occupied Myanmar during the second World War, and then fought to join the new state of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, after independence. As such, one can imagine that the military junta, who took power in 1962, were not the biggest fans of the group. Under military rule, atrocities against the Rohingya escalated, in part due to a strict nationalization program. A powerful propaganda campaign by the military government also sought to convince the country that the Rohingya were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The current conflict must be seen within this historic legacy and the institutionalized marginalization it fostered. So why do some say that the conflict is caused by the competition over resources?
Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia, believes that the military might be clearing the Rohingya to gain unrestricted access to their land. She points to recent and massive land acquisitions and investments by Chinese companies in Rakhine. Companies have pledged, for example, to develop a $7.3 billion deep-sea port and $3.2 billion industrial park spanning 1,737 hectares in southern Rakhine. Others note the recent gas and oil boom in southern Rakhine, including infrastructure investment by Gulf States, an array of oil deals between Myanmar, the Gulf States and China, and, most notably, a Chinese constructed natural gas pipeline. These investments, it is argued, increase the value of land the Rohingya live on and shows the increasing revenue potential of a long-forgotten province. The United States Institute of Peace has further pointed out that China’s investment in the state may partly explain its direct support to the Burmese government during the crisis. Amidst these land acquisitions and investments, the military is using even more extreme tactics against the Rohingya than ever before. During earlier attacks by local militias, the military encouraged and in some cases forced Rohingya to move into government-run camps. They did not offer such options during the early days of the crisis.
Rohingya diaspora groups also point to the tension that natural resource extraction might cause. They argue that local militias are motivated to exterminate the Rohingya because doing so decreases the number of hands to fill with potential development money. Such arguments are compelling, especially considering the military’s actions elsewhere in the country. Yet, they begin to unravel upon closer inspection. Most Rohingya live in northern Rakhine, not southern where almost all investment is focused. So, it is not clear what direct value the projects bring to traditional Rohingya lands. As such, the military’s incentives have not fundamentally changed, despite notions to the contrary. Mass killings and forced exodus also do not appear in relation to other groups living on valuable land in Rakhine.
Another Muslim group, the Kaman (recognized as an official minority by the Government), live by the large investments. They have, since the beginning of the project, been forcibly displaced, placed in camps, and limited in movement – tactics used against the Rohingya before the current crisis – but not been subject to the type of ethnic cleansing directed towards the Rohingya. The Kaman has, furthermore, clashed with the local Buddhists who themselves have been forcibly replaced. Yet, organized mass killings have not ensued. Displacing Rohingya from their land has no clear economic advantage, and genocidal tendencies against other groups do not seem to exist. Explanations rooted in the resource curse, then, hold only limited explanatory power at best.
The resource curse has not struck another fatal blow in northern Rakhine. Rather, historical oppression has escalated into genocidal force due to a changing political, economic and security environment. To think the escalating crimes against humanity can be explained by natural resources or religion alone is unsophisticated. To fully understand the travesty, one needs to understand the region’s history, the legacy of colonialism and military rule, the role of propaganda and popular opinion, and many other factors.
The Rohingya’s suffering does not fit into a neat box imposed from above. In attempting to make it fit, one not only misses the big picture, but also compounds the misunderstanding that has caused their plight.
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