Development, Peacebuilding, and the Rohingya in Myanmar

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During his official visit to Myanmar in January 2017, the then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was accused of ‘incredible insensitivity’, for while in the Shwedagon Pagoda he suddenly started reciting from Kipling’s colonial-era poem ‘Mandalay’ in front of local dignitaries. The accompanying tense British High Commissioner had to stop him by reminding him that reciting this poem was ‘[p]robably not a good idea’. Not unlike in many postcolonial states, a bitter feeling about British colonialism is still fresh in the collective social psyche in Myanmar, and it is rather a conventional wisdom to blame colonial rule for ethnic troubles in the country.

Johnson was visiting Myanmar in the aftermath of the country’s apparent transition to democracy beginning in 2011 after decades of military rule and of self-imposed isolation from global politics and economy. Following the country’s opening-up and democratic elections in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, invited foreign investment with open arms. Investment-led economic growth is seen as the key to the country’s economic development and ethnic peace, which would ultimately help achieve the long-cherished goal of stability and national unity.

The moment of transition to democracy and market liberalisation was also marked by fresh major waves of ethnic violence against the Rohingya minority – first in 2012, with many dead and nearly 150,000 displaced, and again in 2017, genocidal in nature and turning an additional 800,000 Rohingyas, including 400,000 children, into refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh. 

It is, therefore, no surprise that the development discourse in Myanmar is closely linked to ethnic insurgency and peacebuilding. On the one hand, ethnic tensions and separatist tendencies among various ethnic groups are seen as a major impediment to Myanmar’s economic growth since independence. On the other hand, ‘development’ is considered – by Myanmar government and international actors alike – an effective remedy for and a policy response to protracted ethnic conflicts in the country.

For example, the recently formulated Sustainable Development Plan (2018-2030) by Myanmar government recognises this mutual relationship between peace and development. Similarly, the Advisory Commission of Rakhine State, chaired by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, approached the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar through the optics of three crises – of ‘development’, ‘human rights’, and ‘security’. International business firms, too, adopt the language of peace and development to wrap their penetration into the lucrative Myanmar market in humanist fervour. For instance, in his keynote speech before the Oslo Business for Peace Foundation, the Myanmar head of the Norwegian mobile firm Telenor claimed that the company’s work in building mobile towers in remote parts of the country and negotiating with rebels in this regard was contributing to nation-building and should be celebrated as such.

However, the propagation of ‘development’ as a solution to ethnic problems often performs the ideological function of obscuring structural injustice vis-à-vis minorities. As I explain below, ‘development’ as a peacebuilding strategy further marginalises already vulnerable ethnic minorities, leading to more ethnic tension and violence. I specifically shed light on the role of international organisations in this ideological function of ‘development’. 

‘Development’ as a Peace Strategy and the Marginalisation of the Rohingya

In her seminal work Expulsions, Saskia Sassen argues that in the new global order since the 1980s, economic policies and programmatic interventions of international financial and regulatory institutions, such as the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, have facilitated the ‘systemic deepening of advanced capitalism’ with a view to keeping ‘the increasingly privatized and corporatized economy going’. As a result, any competing interest in the way of corporate profit-making is quickly, and often brutally, expelled from the system.

Specifically in the case of Rakhine State, large-scale development projects primarily target the agricultural land and households of the Rohingya, making them internally displaced, although the Rakhine communities have also been affected by such developmental displacements. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, jointly carried out by India and Myanmar, is one such project that aims to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata to the conflict-prone Mizoram state in northeast India through Rakhine State and Chin State in Myanmar. China, Myanmar’s largest development partner and strongest political ally, is also active in Rakhine State with large development projects. The Chinese state-owned investment company China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) is providing 85 per cent of the funding for a USD 7.3 billion deep-sea port project in Kyaukpyu in Rakhine State. CITIC is also investing another USD 3.2 billion to develop the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone project on Ramree Island.

More investment and more development are being advocated by the Suu Kyi government as a strategy for bringing peace to Rakhine State. A committee called the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD) was created in October 2017 under Suu Kyi’s chairpersonship to lead rebuilding efforts. The government is encouraging Burmese business tycoons to invest in development projects in Rakhine.

In the aftermath of the genocidal crackdown on the Rohingya in August 2017 and fierce international criticism of her government, Suu Kyi convened an international investment fair on 22 February 2019 to address the problem of ethnic tension in Rakhine State. In fact, due to the Rohingya’s statelessness and travel restrictions on them, they are unlikely to benefit from most development projects in the region.

It therefore makes complete sense, from Myanmar’s point of view, to bulldoze burned Rohingya houses and in some cases entire villages that the Rohingya had to leave behind in the wake of the 2017 violence. Given the official ban on access to these sites, Amnesty International has analysed satellite imagery, photographs, videos, and victim testimonies and determined that since October 2017 the government has started a major operation to clear burned villages and build new homes, security force bases, and infrastructure in the region. Amnesty International found that the rapid development and expansion of mining fields is taking place in northern Arakan as well as in Rathedaung Township in Sittwe District. Also, a new road to a recently expanded mine has been built right across a now-depopulated Rohingya village in Rathedaung.

Clearly, the already vulnerable Rohingya minority are shouldering the heavy cost of ‘economic development’ imposed as a peace strategy. These so-called development projects in northern Rakhine also undercut the prospect of the voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation – as per international refugee law norms – of more than a million Rohingya refugees, who are currently living in miserable conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

To facilitate various investment and rural development projects and in line with its security agenda, the Myanmar government has acquired a significant amount of land in Rakhine State. While 17,000 acres of land in Rakhine was allocated in the national list of land allocation for economic development in 2012 when Myanmar opened up its economy, the figure rose to a staggering 3.1 million acres in 2016. This rise in the grabbing of Rohingya land correlates directly with foreign investment as developmentalism.

A number of changes in laws governing land ownership were also introduced in 2012 to attract investors: the 1963 Peasant Law was annulled, and the Farmland Law and the Vacant Land Law were amended to make large corporate acquisition easier. These changes allowed 100 per cent foreign capital and lease periods of up to 70 years. The new Foreign Investment Law (2012) allows foreign firms to invest in all sectors of the economy and offers them greater certainty over land use. The government-sponsored land-grabbing further marginalises minorities, thereby deteriorating ethnic relations and leading to more violence. Thus, the neoliberal model of developmentalism as a peacebuilding tool is counter-productive.

Development and International Organisations

The UN’s handling of Rohingya human rights issues, when they are challenged by developmental priorities, shows that international organisations are in no mood to learn from their past mistakes, for example, during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Soon after the genocidal atrocities of 2017, reports emerged that in the four years prior to these horrific events, the Resident Coordinator of the UN Country Team (UNCT), Renata Lok-Dessallien, ‘tried to stop human rights activists travelling to Rohingya areas, attempted to shut down public advocacy on the subject, and isolated staff who tried to warn that ethnic cleansing might be on the way’. This is because a decision had been made to prioritise long-term development in Rakhine in the hope that development would eventually lead to ethnic peace. As a result, UN staff concerned about the Rohingya issues were hushed up and sidelined. As early as 2015, the UN commissioned a report to examine UN priorities in Myanmar. The confidential report, entitled ‘Slippery Slope: Helping Victims or Supporting Systems of Abuse’, gave a damning verdict on UNCT’s approach to the Rohingya crisis: ‘The UNCT strategy with respect to human rights focuses too heavily on the over-simplified hope that development investment itself will reduce tensions, failing to take into account that investing in a discriminatory structure run by discriminatory state actors is more likely to reinforce discrimination than change it.’

The violence of 2017, however, prompted the UN Secretary General to commission another independent inquiry into the UNCT’s involvement in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018, the report of which was published in May 2019. Its author, the veteran Guatemalan diplomat Gert Rosenthal, notes that although several attempts were made to reconcile UN priorities on development, peace, security, and human rights, those efforts remained inconclusive. The report repeatedly refers to the UN’s failings in similar situations in Sri Lanka in 2012 during the country’s wholesale war on Tamil insurgency, highlighting that lessons have not been learned. While analysing dysfunctional actions of the UNCT in Myanmar, Rosenthal specifically notes that the placement of the UN Resident Coordinator under the supervision of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) helped further shift UNCT’s priorities towards development. The UNDP had prioritised development objectives over human rights and was keen on building a relation of trust and predictability with the host government. To make it even worse, to achieve development goals the Resident Coordinator had to partner with other multilateral organisations such as ASEAN, the World Bank, and the local diplomatic community of bilateral donors – human rights was not surely on the top of their priority lists.

In the midst of official censure and widespread criticism of the UN’s failure, Rohingyas’ ongoing struggle for bare survival in make-shift refugee camps in Bangladesh, and Myanmar’s bulldozing of Rohingya villages to free up land for economic development, in May 2019 the World Bank announced a new USD 100 million project for Rakhine Recovery and Development Support. Building on recommendations in Annan Commission reports and the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan, the project aims to achieve ‘productive inclusion’ by generating short-term and long-term income, and ‘improved livelihood’ for all communities by supporting the growth and development of SMEs. The Project Information Document itself acknowledges that with Rohingya statelessness and mobility restrictions still in place, the project might be less beneficial to the Rohingya community and so increase inter-communal economic disparity and discrimination. More than a dozen international NGOs in Myanmar have written a letter to the World Bank warning that the proposed project could worsen the situation in Rakhine State.

Even the Rosenthal Inquiry Report on UN involvement in the Rohingya crisis did not fail to identify positive trends in Myanmar’s economy: ‘a more open, market-oriented economy’, ‘a rapid influx of foreign investment’, ‘an important expansion in infrastructure’, and ‘increasing numbers of white-collar and blue-collar jobs’. Rosenthal’s regret – that despite this progress, pre-existing ethnic tension persists – completely failed to appreciate that it is because of such ‘progress’ that minorities have become more vulnerable and conflicts have intensified. Thus, it is more or less clear that the neoliberal model of developmentalism will continue to dominate peacebuilding strategies in Myanmar in coming years and simultaneously perform the ideological function of legitimising and dissimulating the economic vulnerability, political persecution, and cultural extinction of the Rohingya minority.  


The ideology of development not only marginalises politically suppressed minorities but also tends to legitimise such marginalisation in the name of national economic growth and development. International law maintains a framework within which international actors and postcolonial states suppress minority interests in the name of national (read majoritarian) economic development, whereas politically marginalised minorities suffer the most due to such development activities. In this way, international law advances the ideology of the postcolonial ‘developmental’ state. The legitimation of minority oppression in the name of economic development glosses over the existing structural power imbalance between the minority and the dominant majority in both the political and the socio-economic domain.

The story of the Rohingya in Myanmar is by no means unique in this regard; instead, it is part of a common pattern. The imposition of the neoliberal model of development along with a model of low-intensity democracy that solely focuses on free and fair elections continues to be the centrepiece of any international engagement with post-conflict peacebuilding in many postcolonial states. In this way, the developmental ideology in international law serves to dissimulate aspects of existing asymmetric power relations that provide the premise for the eruption of ethnic tensions in the first place.

Image: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (

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Debarshi Chakraborty says

October 5, 2020

Absolutely. It is always the 'development' narrative which is used for advancing power. The colonisers have always used the 'civilising mission' as a part of their development narrative. Today, governments use 'development', be it educational, economic, even communal, as their narrative for asserting power. This year, the Supreme Court of India, whose independence and impartiality has recently come under severe scrutiny delivered a judgment that mandates government control over certain crucial administrative matters of minority educational institutions. This is problematic specifically because the Indian Constitution guarantees autonomy to minority institutions quite significantly. However, the position taken by the Court is disguised in the terms that State-control will enable the institutions to impart quality education. A detailed argument is available here: