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Rohingya Crisis: A Crafted Crisis in Veil?

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Rohingya Crisis: A Crafted Crisis in Veil?

Written by: Divya Tyagi

Myanmar has been acutely dominating international news coverage since 2017 for perpetuating the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch, Burmese security forces have been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya in Rakhine State.[1] This resulted in over half a million Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar [2] to escape persecution, making it the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.[3]While the deportation of Rohingya is a humanitarian crisis, it is worth questioning if the Western media been right in reducing the same to an ethnic conflict. An analysis of Myanmar’s recently pursued policies suggests religion has been used as a ploy to pursue economic agendas.

How can Myanmar benefit from a displacement crisis?

The answer lies in the increased availability of a natural resource international investors have cast their eyes on for years – land. Ever since Myanmar opened up to foreign investment in 2011, it has been seen as ‘Asia’s final frontier’ for development. The eviction of a proportion of the population is the easiest way to free up land in Myanmar. Being the largest country in South-East Asia and situated between two of the most resource hungry countries – China and India, Myanmar is an ideal geostrategic location for investment. Hence, it is not surprising that both China and India have vested interests in the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the Rakhine State. For Myanmar, foreign direct investments (FDI) into the country translates to greater economic growth as it benefits from increased employment and generates greater revenue from natural resources.

Myanmar, in a bid to promulgate development, has been losing more than 1.15 million acres of forests each year. It is allowing domestic private companies to clear High Conservation Value Forests (HCVFs) for agribusiness, mining, hydropower sites, and special economic zones (SEZs). As land has become Myanmar’s most valuable commodity asset, international financial institutions (IFIs), along with development aid institutions, and global finance corporations are aiming to achieve full liberalisation and modernisation of the agricultural sector. Regions like Tanintharyi are home to the world’s last remaining expansive and intact critically endangered lowland Dipterocarp rain forests. Unfortunately, these forests are being traded off for economic development. This purports a quick boost to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).[4]

New governance, new reforms

Since 1990s, the military juntas have been taking away land from smallholders, regardless of their ethnicity. The grabbing of land exacerbated under the new government of President U Thein Sein, who took over office in March 2011. The new government prompted for revisions of the Farmland Law and the Vacant Land Law.[5] A new Foreign Investment Law was put in place in 2012.[6] The 2012 law empowered foreign investors but disregarded the smallholders. The government also annulled the 1963 Law Safeguarding Peasants Rights (Robert B. Oberndorf, J.D.) in the same year, which protected smallholders’ rights to the land. All displaced smallholders, including Buddhists, became ‘refugees of a new economic ordering’.[7]

Why target the Rohingya?

According to World Bank, 78% households in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside, live below the poverty line,[8] making them an easy bargain for industrial development. When smallholder farmers, which constitutes three-fourths of the population, are viewed as an obstacle rather than an asset in agricultural development (Woods, K.), getting rid of them eases the development process. Recently, the government also allocated 3,100,000 acres in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development (Sasses, S.). This strategy seems to have worked in Myanmar’s favour as the economy grew from 5.9% in 2016/17, to an estimated 6.4% in 2017/18 [9] and expects to further increase to 6.8% in 2018/19.[10]

The living standards of the population have also improved over the last few years. For instance, the number of households using electricity for lighting increased from 3.4 million to 4.5 million between 2015 and 2017.[11] Myanmar has seen a sustained economic growth rate from 2016 despite facing the Rohingya Crisis. Can the eviction of Rohingya be prompting economic growth? The simultaneous opening up of Myanmar to foreign investments and the sudden persecution of the poorest region in the country, hints at the possibility.

Rohingya are not alone facing the crisis in Myanmar

The media has selectively displayed the crisis faced by the Rohingya minority. The broader ‘Rohingya crisis’ which encompasses the persecution and eviction of civilians from Myanmar also includes Buddhists, who are part of the majority. When Buddhist smallholders residing in Rakhine State have also been expelled from their land over the last few years, this calls to reconsider the crisis from the lens of economic interests rather than ethnic divisions. It is also worth noting that Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor and de facto head of government, refused to acknowledge the Rohingya crisis [12] instead spent the last few months on a global promotional tour to pitch the country to foreign investors. [13]

Crisis for minority, fiesta for the rest

Out of 54 million people living in Myanmar, only 1 million have been directly affected by the crisis. The majority of the rest are seeing measurable economic improvement in their lives. A survey conducted by Myanmar’s Centre for Economic and Social Development and Michigan State University in 2016 discovered that real wages in four agriculture-based townships near Yangon had risen by 23% from 2013 to 2016. Also, a survey conducted in 2017 of 14 townships in Myanmar’s “Dry Zone” since 2011 suggests, half of the secondary schools had been constructed in this period and 65% of the households got access to their first electric connections.[14]

The gold rush in Myanmar

Myanmar has been trying to lure international investors into a Gold rush. However, Myanmar has been unapologetically exploiting its resources, especially land, by bargaining lives. The fast and sustained economic growth experienced by Myanmar in the past few years shows no signs of a crisis faced. Religion has been used as a trope which diverts away the attention of media from the economic reforms being pursued inside and outside the country, otherwise.

Grabbing land and clearing away of the Rakhine State by burning houses and persecuting individuals under the veil of religion, subdues Myanmar’s hidden thirst for economic growth and development.


1.Rohingya Crisis. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/tag/rohingya-crisis

2. Rohingya Crisis. UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/emergencies/bangladesh_100945.html

3 . Rohingya Refugee Crisis. UNOCHA. https://www.unocha.org/rohingya-refugee-crisis

4. Woods, K. (2015) Commercial Agriculture Expansion in Myanmar: Links to Deforestation, Conversion Timber, and Land Conflicts. Forest Trends Report Series. https://forest-trends.org//wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Conversion_Timber_in_Myanmar.pdf

5. Robert B. Oberndorf, J.D. Legal Review of Recently Enacted Farmland Law and Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law (2012). Forest Trends. https://www.forest-trends.org/wp-content/uploads/imported/fswg_lcg_legal-review-of-farmland-law-and-vacant-fallow-and-virgin-land-management-law-nov-2012-eng-2-pdf.pdf

6. Unlocking The Potential Country Diagnostic Study (2014). Asian Development Bank. http://themimu.info/sites/themimu.info/files/assessment_file_attachments/Myanmar_Unlocking_the_Potential_-_Country_Diagnostic_Study_-_ADB_August_2014.pdf

7. Sassen, S. Is Rohingya persecution caused by business interests rather than religion? (2017). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jan/04/is-rohingya-persecution-caused-by-business-interests-rather-than-religion

8. Ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity in a time of transition (2014). A Systematic Country Diagnostic. World Bank Group.  http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/EAP/Myanmar/WBG_SCD_Full_Report_English.pdf

9. The World Bank in Myanmar (2018). The World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/overview

10. Economy Grows Amid Uncertainty in Myanmar (2018). The World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/05/17/economy-grows-amid-uncertainty-in-myanmar

11. Key Findings: Myanmar Living Conditions Survey 2017 (2018). The World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/publication/key-findings-myanmar-living-conditions-survey-2017

12. How Aung San Suu Kyi Sees the Rohingya Crisis (2018). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42824778

13. Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Makes Investment Pitch to Foreign Businesses (2018). The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/myanmars-suu-kyi-makes-investment-pitch-to-foreign-businesses

14. Reiefffel, L. Myanmar Economy Grows Despite Refugee Crisis (2018). Nikkei Asian Review. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Myanmar-economy-grows-despite-refugee-crisis


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