Scenes of the violent military crackdown in Burma’s Rakhine state, a restive area that for decades has been the site of ethnic strife, have become familiar since the violence erupted in August: plumes of smoke rising in the distance, thousands of Rohingya Muslims escaping to Bangladesh on foot, entire villages standing empty.
Now the Burmese government is hoping to paint a different picture.
Under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has pushed the nation’s most powerful business executives, many of them previously under U.S. sanctions, to pump millions of dollars into infrastructure projects, and tapped others to start Rakhine-
focused businesses, all while soliciting international donors.
But observers say these plans are fraught and likely to have few benefits for the Rohingya, nearly 700,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh and who continue to cross the border even as preparations are underway for their return to Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. The efforts also have been insufficient in placating ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who are deeply distrustful of the government’s plans.
The development push reflects the position of successive governments that the violence in Rakhine, which the United States and United Nations have labeled ethnic cleansing, is caused by a lack of economic opportunity.
“From our point of view, the issue in Rakhine is very much related to poverty,” said Ye Min Aung, the vice chairman of Burma’s chamber of commerce, who has been asked by the government to launch a rice business in Rakhine. “That is the very root cause of the problems.”
Business executives such as him hope to return Rakhine state to its “former glories,” he said.
The rebuilding efforts are led by the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD), a group formed in October. Suu Kyi, who chairs the committee, said it aims to build a “peaceful and developed Rakhine state.”
Critics say the government’s development agenda is premature and dodges the issues of discrimination, statelessness and violence faced by the Rohingya for generations. Questions remain over whether the Rohingya, who before fleeing faced severe constraints on their movement, would benefit from infrastructure such as roads, which they might be barred from accessing.
“The UEHRD was formed to divert attention from violent ethnic cleansing,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst in Rangoon. “Tasking cronies to construct Potemkin villages won’t wash away the stain of mass crimes. The government is either receiving very bad advice and believes this reconstruction will work, or it’s a cynical ploy to pretend the violence was simply a bad dream.”
The torched Rohingya villages have been bulldozed as part of the development and investment push, leading to outcries from the United Nations that Burma is trying to cover up atrocities.
In a report released Monday, Amnesty International said at least three new security force bases are under construction in the north of Rakhine, citing satellite images and interviews with Rohingya in Bangladesh. The sites are being built by members of the security forces.
Amnesty International said it was “deeply concerned that the Myanmar authorities are reshaping the region so as to accommodate more security forces and more non-Rohingya villagers, at the expense of homes, agricultural lands and villages where Rohingya have lived and farmed for generations.”
Aung Tun Thet, the UEHRD’s chief coordinator, dismissed concerns raised by Human Rights Watch and echoed last week by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
“As far as our intention, it was not to clear up anything,” Aung Tun Thet said. “It was just merely to ensure that when the buildings are being built there is clear grounds on which the buildings can be constructed.”
With two repatriation centers completed, Burma is “ready to receive them,” he said of the Rohingya. Bangladesh and Burma signed a repatriation agreement in January, but no Rohingya have returned, as the implementation of the deal has stalled.
To help carry out its ambitious development plans, the government tapped the private sector, including a handful of the country’s most powerful business executives, some of whom had been sanctioned by the U.S. government for their relationships to the former military regime.
These economic strongmen were marshaled under the previous junta for projects such as the construction of the capital, Naypyidaw, and to broker arms deals, often in return for lucrative contracts and business deals. This time, some of those involved in the development plans have grown resentful of the expensive projects.
Groups tapped to rebuild the state include the Asia World Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Asia World, a conglomerate run by Steven Law, the son of a heroin kingpin. The company is constructing a 50-mile road through Rakhine, according to its website.
Law, who was branded a “top crony” of the previous ruling junta in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, was removed from the blacklist when the United States eased sanctions against Burma in 2016.
The Asia World Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Other formerly sanctioned tycoons who have contributed include property developers Khin Shwe and Zaw Zaw, whose business interests range from banking to hospitality and who traveled with Suu Kyi to Rakhine in November.
Khin Shwe declined to comment. Zaw Zaw did not respond to a request for comment.
A consultant on Burma investment familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that some of the business executives were unhappy with being asked to contribute money and resources.
“Myanmar’s business tycoons were summoned up to Naypyidaw and were strongly urged — though some saw no choice — to contribute to a fund to develop Rakhine state,” the consultant said. “There was little in the way of details or clarity as to what the fund would do. And it smacked of the junta days of being summoned to do some wacky project, but this time, without concessions.”
For the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who, it appears, will be the major beneficiaries of the development push, the government’s efforts are insufficient and being implemented without enough input from the Rakhine community, they say.
“The government wants to show the international community how they are preparing things for the Bengalis, not for us [Rakhines],” said Soe Naing, a member of the Rakhine Social Network, a collection of activist groups, using a term that implies that the Rohingya are from Bangladesh. “The government is doing one-sided things for the Bengalis, not for the Rakhine people.”
This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.