Saskia Sassen :
In the last four years Myanmar's Rohingya, a centuries-old Muslim minority group, have been subjected to sharply escalating persecution by the Myanmar army, and by a particular sector of extreme nationalist Buddhist monks.
A brutal attack marking a new level of violence (pdf) against the Rohingya occurred in 2012 and led to the flight of thousands to other countries. More recently, military forces entered one of the rural areas occupied by the Rohingya. They destroyed at least 1,500 buildings and shot unarmed men, women and children dead. Earlier this week a video emerged showing villagers sitting on the ground with their arms over their heads, as soldiers appear to beat one of the men.
The world's coverage of these events has focused entirely on the religious/ethnic aspect, characterising them as religious persecution. Human Rights Watch described the anti-Rohingya violence as amounting to "crimes against humanity," carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Malaysia's foreign minister described the Myanmar government's actions as ethnic cleansing and called on them to stop the practice, leading in turn to a strong response from Myanmar's government. John McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency, said the Myanmar government was carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.
But my research leads me to argue that religion and ethnicity might be only part of what explains this forced displacement.
The past two decades have seen a massive worldwide rise of corporate acquisitions of land for mining, timber, agriculture and water. In the case of Myanmar, the military have been grabbing vast stretches of land (pdf) from smallholders since the 1990s, without compensation, but with threats if they try to fight back. This land grabbing has continued across the decades but has expanded enormously in the last few years. At the time of the 2012 attacks, the land allocated to large projects had increased by 170% between 2010 and 2013. By 2012 the law governing land (pdf) was changed to favour large corporate acquisitions. We must ask whether the sharpened persecution of the Rohingya (and other minority groups) might be partly generated by military-economic interests, rather than by mostly religious/ethnic issues. Expelling Rohingya from their land might well be good for future business. In fact, quite recently the government allocated 1,268,077 hectares (3,100,000 acres) in the Rohingya's area of Myanmar for corporate rural development; this is quite a jump compared to the first such formal allocation which was in 2012, for just 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres). To some extent the international focus on religion has overshadowed the vast land grabs that have affected millions, including the Rohingya.
Who are the Rohingya?
Rohingya are an old Muslim minority that has long been part of Myanmar, going back to the 15th century when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Rohingya is a self-identifying term that surfaced in the 1950s and that experts say provides the group with a collective, political identity.
Over one-third of the Rohingya are concentrated in the western state of Rakhine - one of Myanmar's least developed states, with plentiful land. The Rohingya are poor, with more than 78% of households living below the poverty line, according to World Bank estimates. Their poverty might further enable their evictions to make room for development projects.
Co-existence was never exactly peaceful, but from the 1990s until 2012 there were no major killings (pdf). But in 2012 Arakanese Buddhists called for their persecution after three Muslim men were accused of raping an Arakanese woman. That year, Arakanese political parties, local monks' associations, and civic groups publicly urged the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya. A particular sect of Buddhists went so far as to re-interpret sections of Buddhist texts to urge people to kill Rohingya. The vast majority of Buddhists did not join in.
After 2012 the Rohingya begin to leave Myanmar in large numbers: it had become clear that they were now an actively persecuted people. The 2012 violence against the Rohingya civilian population "resulted in approximately 200 deaths and over 140,000 displaced" according to the US state department. The UN high commissioner for refugees estimates that since 2012, 160,000 Rohingya left by sea to neighbouring countries - mostly to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. More than 120,000 Rohingya are still housed in over 40 internment camps in Myanmar according to the regional rights organisation Fortify Rights.
But is it about religion?
The treatment of the Rohingya is sometimes described as a crime against humanity. But we need to interrogate its sources. If we bring in some of the larger trends affecting modest rural communities, two major facts stand out. One is the far larger numbers of Buddhist smallholders who have also been expelled from their land in the last few years. And the other is the fact that large-scale timber extraction, mining, and water projects are replacing the expelled.
This combination of conditions have until recently rarely been mentioned in the media, and are absent from the religion discussion. The focus of the global media, and to a large extent inside Myanmar, has been on religious hatred.
There were high expectations that Aung San Suu Kyi party's electoral victory in November 2015 would bring justice. But she has made a point of not addressing these developments in her public statements. Indeed as recently as May 2016, she requested that the US not use the word Rohingya because, according to one of her spokesmen, the term is not useful as part of the national reconciliation process.
But the land grabs have been silently ignored. In fact, the military were already taking land from Buddhist smallholders and other groups in the 1990s. But in 2012 a change in the law escalated matters and (formally) opened the country to foreign investors. On 30 March 2012, the joint lower and upper houses of parliament approved the revision of two land laws: the Farmland Law and the Vacant Land Law. This amounted to a new Foreign Investment Law that allowed 100% foreign capital, and lease periods of up to 70 years. Compared to mining, the agriculture sector still has some restrictions on foreign investment in that the government promotes joint ventures with local entrepreneurs. However, foreign firms often use local companies as proxies (pdf) for investments.
The 1963 Peasant Law was also annulled in 2012, this piece of statute, which protected smallholders and the "tiller's rights to the land", had been in place since the country's socialist era.
Against this background, the escalating displacement of millions of smallholders (mostly Buddhists) from the land was a major change as to who was to manage the land. Smallholders became refugees of a new economic ordering. Myanmar is not unique in this. Similar brutal expulsions of smallholders have been happening across the world as large corporations take over because they "establish" that the smallholders have no contracts showing the land is theirs, no matter how long they and their ancestors worked that land. What is different in Myanmar is the almost absolute control the military have long had over much of the country's land, and hence their key role in the expulsion of smallholders (pdf).
Today there are whole new economies - mining, timber, geothermal projects - where before there were smallholders. Economic development may require this: but it should also work for the millions of displaced and never compensated smallholders. Foreign direct investment is now concentrated in extractive sectors and power generation. Not much of the new investment has gone to sectors such as manufacturing that can generate a strong working class and a modest middle class. For example, Myanmar's Yadana pipeline project, "required investment of over $1bn (£0.8bn), yet employs only 800 workers".
Furthermore, the 2012 law empowered foreign investors. It offered government loans - but no help for the smallholders who lost their land. Land properties can range from 2,000 hectares up to 20,000 hectares (5,000 acres to 50,000 acres) for an initial period of 30 years. The extent of land grabs is such that Myanmar is losing more than a million acres of forest a year (pdf).
Many, perhaps most, of the contracts signed for major land deals have their own conditions and effects. For instance, regional military commanders and non-state armed groups have de facto control over most land development in northern Myanmar.
Two parallel worlds
The Myanmar of brutal religious persecutions that has led to huge worldwide concern is only getting worse. But then there is the Myanmar of evictions of smallholders to make room for massive land grabs. Since the first set of foreign investors entered the country, demand for land has become a major factor in conflict.
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.
Since that first set of major foreign investors entered the country under the new legal regime, demand for land has become a major factor in conflict. Foreign firms have moved in, land grabs have risen, smallholders keep losing ground. Farmers have become poorer or lost their land. But the land market is booming.
Seen from this angle, persecution of the Rohingya has at least two functions, even if unplanned. Expelling them from their land is a way of freeing up land and water. Burning their homes makes this irreversible: the Rohingya are forced to flee and leave their lands behind. Secondly, a focus on religious difference mobilises passions around religion, rather than aiming, let's say, at creating pressure on the government to stop evictions of all smallholders, no matter their religion.
Against the background of millions of expelled smallholders, it is remarkable how much religion has captured the attention of observers and commentators. In the meantime, a third of Myanmar's vast forests are gone, and the government has allocated million of hectares, including a significant allotment in Rakhine state, for further development.
(Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lind professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and the author of several books including Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy).