By Satuk Bugra Kutlugun
A group representing Rohingya Muslims in Europe has blasted plans for a long-delayed economic zone in a troubled state of western Myanmar, saying Tuesday that it may cause lasting damage to Rohingya property and lives.
Mohamed Ibrahim, the general secretary of the European Rohingya Council, urged lawmakers to rethink plans to house the industrial park in Rakhine before addressing the rights of its Rohingya minority, along with opportunities and compensation for other local people.
"Rohingya will not benefit from this development because Rohingya are not yet recognized as a minority or citizens by the current government, and [there is] no sign of recognition for Rohingya as citizens by the incoming government," he said in an emailed response to questions sent by Anadolu Agency.
Outgoing President Thein Sein's proposal for the region passed through parliament in December with 424 of 511 lawmakers supporting the move. However, lawmakers from ethnic Rakhine parties, alongside several from the government-elect National League for Democracy (NLD) voted against it.
The Council has accused the government of deliberately fomenting religious and ethnic hatred between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in the underdeveloped and impoverished region
"It [the violence] is down to the Burmese [Myanmar] governments, who have manipulated the Rakhine people into hating us to divide us and rule us," Council Chair Khairul Amin told Anadolu Agency in August.
In 2012, a series of sectarian disputes in Rakhine -- that many suspect were state sponsored -- left 57 Muslims and 31 Buddhists dead, around 90,000 people displaced and more than 2500 houses burned -- most of which belonged to Rohingya.
The council has also underlined that a contributing factor in disharmony in the region has been not just come from outside Rakhine, but also outside Myanmar's borders.
Ambia Perveen, the council's secretary for advocacy, says that although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- to which Myanmar belongs -- has made promises to help the Rohingya, little has actually been done to conquer the true problem -- the economic greed of the outgoing ruling party and its foreign allies.
"ASEAN is controlled by China [Myanmar's biggest trade partner], by Buddhism, by India," Perveen underlined in the August interview. "They do not care. China does not care about Islam, it cares about money. They see us as Muslims, not human beings."
In December, opposition lawmakers highlighted the enormous role played by China in the planned Kyaukphyu special industrial zone (SEZ) -- which will include an industrial park, a residential estate and two deep-sea ports on nearby islands.
According to the proposal, around 85 percent of project investment is due to come from Chinese companies – investments that have also drawn protests from local residents and businesses.
Council general secretary Ibrahim claimed Tuesday that ownership of the development as it stood would "never lead to a calming of racial and religion tensions in the area."
"It will create violence between the minorities over sharing or enjoying the benefit of the project. As the real owner of these natural resources we -- Rohingya and Rakhines -- should benefit."
Hla Thein, chairman of the Rakhine Social Association, has also warned that it would be a “huge mistake” to implement the project “without addressing the demands of local people.”
He told Anadolu Agency in December that the SEZ should “also benefit local people, not only big companies,” urging the government to “provide suitable vocational training for local people before implementation of the project so that they can get a job easily.”
The SEZ project -- planned to spread across three Rakhine townships was first announced in Sept. 2013 and bidding closed in Nov. 2014.
Amid a delay in the announcement of successful tenders -- originally slated for earlier this year --- Chinese partners had been eager to see the project approved before the new NLD government takes power in March 2016.
Although the NLD's leader -- Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi -- has been forced to distance herself from Muslim causes, many analysts suspect pressure from human rights groups and European investors will encourage the party to fight for a better lot for the Rohingya.
President Thein Sein's outgoing government -- which many see as a proxy for the military -- has longstanding economic links with China, which analysts have speculated may see them continue to control large sectors of the nation's wealth when replaced by the NLD
The proposed project covers the servicing of the Shwe gas field in the Bay of Bengal, which in turn services a pipeline carrying oil and gas to China – Myanmar’s largest trade partner.
Its is among planned three special economic zones – including the Dawei SEZ in southern Tanitharyi Division and the Thilawa SEZ on the outskirts of Yangon – as Myanmar seeks to develop its economy after emerging from almost 50 years of isolation under brutal military rule.
Myanmar's Muslim minority consists mostly of Rohingya, who have faced widespread persecution for decades, but their situation has become ever more perilous since the sectarian violence of 2012.
Many Muslims were not allowed to stand in the Nov. 8 election on dubious citizenship grounds, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were also unable to vote because the government bowed to calls from ultra-nationalists to exclude them.
In June 2015, a senior researcher at the South Asia Institute, Siegfried O. Wolf, described Rakhine State to Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle as one of Myanmar's poorest areas, despite being rich in natural resources.
"The Rohingya are thus considered an additional economic burden on the state, as they compete for the few available jobs and opportunities to do business," he was reported as saying.
"The jobs and businesses in the state are mostly occupied by the Burmese elite. As a result, we can say that Buddhist resentment against the Rohingya is not only religious; it is also political and economically driven."