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.”