The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has a solution. China is constructing mega infrastructure projects in Asia and beyond under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). One such project has landed in Myanmar’s coastal town of Kyaukpyu.
China is building a deep seaport in Kyaukpyu which promises economic uplift of Rakhine, the country’s impoverished state hit by a wave of unrest. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described the violence as ethnic cleansing.
What is the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar?
Rohingya people are a group of predominant Muslims who Myanmar does not officially recognize as one of its 135 ethnic groups. In the state of Rakhine, they accounted for one-third of the population until the outbreak of violence in August 2017.
The government of Myanmar has imposed discriminatory restrictions on the Rohingya which relate to marriage, employment, education and freedom of movement.
Rakhine has a poverty rate of 78 percent, much higher than the 37.5 percent national average. This, in addition to lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities, drew friction among the Buddhist and Muslim populations and a state-backed genocide ignited a mass exodus of the Rohingya out of the country.
The Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port
Kyaukpyu deep seaport is a natural harbor on the Indian Ocean and is well suited for large ships. China is financing Myanmar with $1.3 billion for the port which will form part of the BRI.
China is also constructing an industrial area in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the port’s vicinity akin to those spread across China for augmenting the economic potential of the port.
In addition to that, two 870 km oil and gas pipelines originating from Kunming, the capital city of China’s landlocked Yunnan province, culminate in Kyaukpyu.
How Will the Kyaukpyu Port Solve the Rohingya Crisis?
Ever since the Rakhine state’s reputation dropped in the face of violence against the Rohingya people, it has struggled to attract outside investment and business. The projects launched by China in the state now offer a chance to uplift its economic condition.
The underlying cause of religious extremism worldwide is poverty. In Rakhine, one economically deprived community turned against another and, when the military joined in, the result was the death of thousands of Muslims.
The oil and gas imports to China pass through either the Pakistani port of Gwadar or the Strait of Malacca. Upon completion, Kyaukpyu port will share a large portion of southern China’s imports that are presently passing through the politically unpredictable Malacca.
The Kyaukpyu port connects China’s southern landlocked provinces with the Indian Ocean. Oil supplies will reach these provinces faster as well as allow them to reduce their export times.
Unlike the frequently touted intention of China’s String of Pearls being geo-strategic, these Chinese ports have largely economic objectives.
After the completion of the Kyaukpyu port, an economic ecosystem will sprout around the port, providing livelihood to thousands of people directly related to its operations. The actual effect, however, will be with the rise in trade activity in the Rakhine state.
The industrial area China is building in Kyaukpyu’s SEZ will generate further employment opportunities for the locals and the industrial output will have a positive spillover effect on the state. Its identity as an extremism hub can transform into an economic nucleus.
China built Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor had, in the same manner, subsided the insurgent violence there. Balochistan was once a hotbed of separatist rebels who have now shifted allegiance back to the Pakistani government after re-assessing how it is far more beneficial.
The trade activity in Rakhine too will force the warring sides to shun violence when the port will serve them with the option of economic development. The economic uplift of Rakhine will consequently improve the educational level of the people which is an important factor in reducing extremism.
The Myanmar government is presently facing a trial at the International Court of Justice over genocide accusations. Human rights watchdogs have also criticized the State Counselor of Myanmar and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her silence on the genocidal intent of the government. With the economic uplift, however, the government will have an incentive against using violence in the Rakhine state.
The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar may seem ethnic but the root cause remains economic deprivation. With trade opportunities in the Rakhine state, extremism will naturally subside.
The projects in Kyaukpyu are also a sign that the growing Chinese economic clout can solve the problems of impoverished regions. It is now up to the Myanmar government that it avails the chance to wash away the stains of genocide it has on its sleeve.