by Linda D. Green
The inter-imperialist rivalry between China and the US is being played out in the destruction of Rohingya villages and the forced migration of at least 400,000 refugees into Bangladesh. This is largely being portrayed as an attack on Muslims who have been denied citizenship in Myanmar and portrayed in the media as a religious issue. But is the issue really religious persecution? Or is this an extreme example of displacement for future economic development?
For the last 20 years groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented land grabs by the military government of Myanmar that have affected poor Buddhists and others of the 135 ethnic groups. For example, in the province of Keren, which borders Thailand and is viewed as prime development area for tourism and industrial and agricultural development, poor farmers have been displaced without compensation and arrested for trespassing when they continue to farm the land. In 2012, Myanmar’s laws were changed to formally open the country to foreign investors, and protections for small landowners were abolished. “Myanmar has become a last Asian frontier for our current modes of development – plantation agriculture, mining, and water extraction. Its location makes it even more strategic. Besides being the largest country of south-east Asia, Myanmar is between the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, both hungry for natural resources.”(Guardian, 1/4/17)
Despite the election in 2015 of the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi, the country remains largely under control of the military. Western sanctions against the military government had been in place during the prior direct military government rule. After the election these sanctions were lifted, but the current aggressive military actions against the Rohingya could, although they probably will not, lead to renewal of sanctions. The current ethnic cleansing is said to be a response to the attack on a police station by a small Rohingya group, the Arakan Rohinguy Salvation Army (ARSA). However, rather than being a “security” issue, the real goal is to clear territory of Rohingya villages and people in the area that China wishes to exploit. There is interest in building a deep sea port at Kyaukpyu on the Rakhine coast ($7.3 billion) and developing an industrial park nearby ($3.2 billion) according to Saskia Sassan’s commentary in the Huffington Post (9/15/17). This is part of China’s $900 billion Belt and Road Initiative in Asia and would give China a foothold in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
With so much at stake it is clear that Nobel Peace Prizes, such as the one awarded to Aung, are as meaningless as the one given to Obama. Human rights are easily swept aside as we have seen in other countries and even domestically when pipelines and development can bring profits. The Buddhists, who are impoverished themselves and have been displaced in even greater numbers than the Rohingya, nevertheless have succumbed to virulent racism and religious prejudice and are helping the military. Racism has reached such a pitch that on September 20, a 300-person Buddhist mob prevented a Red Cross boat from carrying aid to refugees. Fanning ethnic tensions seems to be working for the Myanmar military and being ignored in the interest of development by the NLD.
The only solution to these recurring problems around the world lies in class struggle and multiracial, multiethnic unity. Clearly, many of the poor Buddhists of Myanmar have been won to opposing their own interests because of racism and religious prejudice. Such divisions are fostered by ruling classes throughout the world in order to enrich themselves and divide their enemies. The fight against anti-Muslim sentiment in the US and Europe is also part of the anti-racist struggle necessary to build the unity needed to destroy exploitation worldwide and oppose the rise of fascism and war.
We must build an international movement to support the struggles of workers and farmers in Myanmar against the government’s efforts to drive people off the land and impoverish them in slave labor industrial development. We condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and call upon the many oppressed Buddhists and others to join in demanding that the military cease and desist attacks on the Muslim population.
Linda Green is a retired physician and long time anti-racist activist in Prince Georges County, Md.