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Is the World Bank’s Rakhine project misguided?

  • Published at 06:02 pm May 19th, 2019
Will it create new openings for social cohesion or increase the segregation? MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

It remains unclear who this is supposed to help

There’s no need to give a lengthy introduction to the Rohingya issue. As things stand, around 1.1 million Rohingyas are now living in Bangladesh with very little chance of ever going back to their homeland in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

While the international communities are providing support in the form of food, medicine, and expertise to the massive assistance program run by the Bangladesh government, no country or development agency has taken any concrete step to either make Myanmar express any regret for what she has done to the Rohingyas or exert pressure to ensure Rakhine State is made safe and secure for a future return of the displaced.

All that we have heard is rhetoric. Plenty of it, in fact, topped with the regular platitudes followed by some vacuous measures like stripping Aung San Suu Kyi of some obscure titles conferred on her.

In such a situation, the World Bank’s (WB) proposal to invest $100m in Rakhine seems more like a move to propitiate the Myanmar authority, which, in reality, is the army.

Investment in the name of development?

The first question that pops to mind -- is this aimed to help the Rohingya, or the authority in Myanmar? For argument’s sake, even if the WB injects such a massive amount in Rakhine, the question will be: Who is this for?

We all know that most people who were in Rakhine are actually in Bangladesh, living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. So, who will benefit from the projects? 

There have been several reports in the past stating that the atmosphere in Rakhine is still tense and not conducive for the Rohingyas to return.

Now, the first priority, at least from a journalist’s perspective, is to create a situation in which Myanmar opens up Rakhine for inspection.

This means, a thorough assessment of the socio-political environment, including taking a close look at the simmering anger of the local Buddhist population against the Rohingyas.

It stands to reason, if locals feel that the Rohingya are no part of Myanmar, the whole idea of economic regeneration in the area will serve the wrong purpose.

The Rohingya in Burma had been relegated socially, politically, and economically for ages. Even in Rakhine, they were never really included in the economy.

Unless there is an unequivocal guarantee from the Burmese authority that any development activity will directly engage the persecuted, attempting a development investment will raise suspicion.

Bringing in development projects in an area where prejudices run deep and are masked by the pretence of normalcy appears misguided.

Concentrate on safe return first

Whether it’s the WB or any other organization trying to provide support to the Rohingya imbroglio, the emphasis should be given to the dignified, voluntary return of the Rohingya, which can only happen when people living in the camps feel convinced that Myanmar is contrite for what has happened and is will willing to make amends.

Unfortunately, in the countless times that the civil administration has faced the question about the Rohingya, there has never been an expression of remorse.

Aung San Suu Kyi has unabashedly resorted to prevarication, equivocating the issue while international communities plus global powerhouses have been mealy-mouthed in blaming the military authority for the atrocities.

But, let’s assume there is a development investment in Rakhine.

Obviously, if that is solely for the Rohingya then it may trigger already existing antagonism to flare up. Any development in Rakhine must be preceded by an open declaration that the region is safe for the Rohingyas to go back.

That hasn’t happened as yet.

On the ground, the reality is that many Rohingya living in the camps are being lured by human traffickers with promises of a better life in Malaysia. In a state of desperation, several have tried to leave and were eventually apprehended by the Bangladeshi law enforcers.

This indicates a sense of restlessness which has begun to creep into the camps. This can, over time, lead to crime, violence, and disorder.

A pervasive sense of malaise may sound like a trivial problem though, but in truth, it’s a grave issue. The camps may soon need psychologists since the problems faced by the residents will be linked to a growing sense of despondency over their general purpose of existence.

Despite support from development partners, there has not been any pressure on Myanmar from any side to take back the Rohingya.

Maybe it won’t be wrong to say that sustaining the Rohingya issue will be a boon for development agencies because, while the Rohingya remain in Bangladesh, their large scale development operations will continue to provide fertile employment space for countless international consultants.

If the WB is genuinely concerned then instead of trying to give legitimacy to a military-backed puppet rule in Myanmar, it should attach the condition of complete security in Rakhine as a pre-condition for any development project.

In the meantime, the WB should invest in skill development projects in the camps in Bangladesh which will teach a variety of livelihood-ensuring capabilities.

Obviously, these projects need to be run, led, and designed by local experts and not by exorbitantly paid foreigners, which is usually the norm.

Bangladeshis cannot be hoodwinked into believing anymore that development can only deliver when led by outsiders. 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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