West Bank of the East: Burma’s Social Engineering Project




IF YOU HAPPENED to be a common criminal in Burma’s prison system in the mid-1990s, you may have been approached with a compelling, if unlikely, offer. Struggling to control its periphery, the military regime had crafted a plan to shift Buddhist communities from central Burma into a remote area of the northwest they feared was being “lost” to Muslims. Wardens in the prisons of Yangon and nearby towns were to offer inmates early release in exchange for resettlement 350 miles away. Those who agreed, and hundreds did, would leave their cells within days, board hulking freight liners and sail west, hugging the coastline for four days until they reached Sittwe on Burma’s western coast. There they would disembark and journey further north, to newly built model villages flanked by the paddy fields they would one day learn to till. Houses were gifted to them, and every month they received rations of essential foodstuffs — rice, cooking oil, fish paste. Soon they would be joined by other Buddhists from elsewhere in the country — prisoners plucked from their cells, or homeless families recruited from squatter camps on the Yangon outskirts. Criminal or not, they were Buddhist and therefore sons of the soil. As more arrived, so the regime hoped, the area’s Muslim population would gradually be diluted — the early arrivals were the seeds that, in time, would flower into a meadow and beautify the hills and plains.

The regime had long seen this corner of country as a threat to national consolidation. The influx of workers from the sub-continent during British rule prompted a shift in the demographics of much of Burma’s west, but also in Yangon where by 1930 around half of inhabitants were Indian. By the 1990s the former capital’s population had more or less “corrected” itself as the Bamar component — the majority ethnic group in Burma, and which has dominated the political center since independence — expanded. But this area of northern Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh, remained a point of concern, heavily populated as it was by Rohingya, a Muslim minority stripped of its citizenship in 1982 under the pretense that all were illegal immigrants — or their descendants — from the sub-continent. By planting Buddhist communities there that it considered nominally loyal to the state, the regime believed it could claw the area back towards the center. Or so the logic ran.

The architect of Rohingya statelessness, General Ne Win, bore a strong xenophobic streak that fed his vision of a racially and religiously homogenous society ruled by Bamar. The notion that peace could only be achieved in Burma when all the country’s disparate ethnic groups were assimilated into the majority constituted a significant component of the rationale of military rule — in particular the regime’s violent hostility towards non-Bamar groups. But Rohingya were singled out for particularly harsh treatment, and removed from the list of national races in a bid to weaken what the regime feared were its attempts to develop a self-governing enclave — if not a breakaway micro-state — in the northwest. Two major pogroms, in 1978 and 1991, drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh, yet neither effort could entirely alter the demographic composition of northern Rakhine State to favor Buddhists. The project to ship the down-and-outs of Yangon to the area would therefore do two things: rebalance the population make-up, and install proxy-like communities there that would hand the levers of control over development of the region back to the regime.

In early June 2012, a wave of intense conflict erupted in the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, 100 kilometers south of where the building of the model Buddhist villages had begun two decades earlier. The fighting, triggered by a series of incidents in late May and early June — the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingya men, the subsequent killing of 10 Muslims aboard a bus, and attacks on Rakhine property by Rohingya in Maungdaw in the north of the state — pitted Rakhine and Rohingya against one another in bloody machete battles. Although the relationship between the two communities had often been tense — with many Rakhine claiming their state was being overrun by Muslims, and Rohingya aggrieved at Rakhine support for their disenfranchisement — it had in the years preceding 2012 on the whole been a non-violent one. But the rape and subsequent incidents mobilized civilians from both sides to attack one another on a scale not seen in several generations, and erupted again in October 2012 when Rakhine mobs over several days attacked Muslim communities in nine townships. Over the two bouts of violence, entire Muslim quarters of Sittwe and other towns up and down the coast were razed to the ground, often by Rakhine from nearby communities that prior to June that year had interacted relatively freely with their neighbors. Close to 150,000 Rohingya were driven into refugee camps, while Rakhine communities were also displaced.

Construction of the model villages appears to have slowed prior to the 2012 conflict. But the violence provoked something of a chain reaction that made its way into communities of ethnic Rakhine living in Bangladesh. Rakhine, like all minority groups in Burma, inhabited their region long before Burma’s frontiers were drawn, meaning their roots extended both sides of the country’s border. As villages burned in Rakhine State, preexisting tensions between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Bangladeshis rose, occasionally spilling into violence. A number of direct victims of the violence in Bangladesh upped and left for Burma. But among those that remained were communities in Bangladesh that began to receive visits from Rakhine officials and monks who had crossed over, offering incentives to bring their ethnic counterparts back home — a newly built house, a year’s worth of food rations and, this time around, a one-off payment of 60,000 kyat (equivalent to around $50). For the arm of government in charge of the model villages, the Ministry of Progress for Border Areas, National Races and Development (known by its local acronym Na Ta La, the name extended to the villages) spiraling tensions in Bangladesh provided the grounds on which to reinvigorate the project. Rakhine in Bangladesh, whose security had been jeopardized as a result of the June 2012 violence, could be more readily incentivized to resettle in a country to which their familial connections had weakened over the generations, but who had retained the all-important factor of a shared ethno-national identity that countered the Muslim presence there.

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In this pocket of northern Rakhine State, one is hard pressed to find a good road. For five long months each year the region is battered by heavy rains that loosen the topsoil of hillsides and send rocks and earth pummeling onto tarmac surfaces below. Since the start of Burma’s attempted transition to democracy in 2011, government spending on infrastructure has increased bit by bit, yet much is reserved for the commercial centers of Yangon, Mandalay, and the new capital, Naypyidaw. Little makes it to the periphery, where cars and freight trucks still contend with heavily potholed thoroughfares that wind their way between and over hills. But the most recently-built Na Ta La village — a cluster of 70 or so breeze-block houses painted a dull green, named Shwe Baho, opened in June to new arrivals from Bangladesh — is approached along perhaps the only road in the area not pockmarked with deep holes. It was laid last year to service these new inhabitants and provide them with the means to circumvent the nearby Muslim villages whose own approach roads show few signs of upkeep. It sits in the middle of fields a 20-minute drive from the town of Maungdaw, which in the 1990s was targeted as a key focal point of the resettlement project because of its disproportionate balance of Rohingya to Rakhine inhabitants.

In a country in which government-led social welfare schemes have been virtually non-existent for half a century, the Na Ta La scheme stands like a beacon of altruism, were it not for the sinister motive underpinning it. A decade prior to the project’s launch, Rohingyans were stripped of their citizenship and the rights that accompanied it. As new roads were laid to link the resettled Buddhist communities to urban centers in Rakhine State, the converse happened to Rohingya: tight restrictions were placed on their freedom of movement, so much so that to travel the hour from Maungdaw to the nearby town of Buthidaung would require a travel permit from the township immigration office, and likely a bribe to speed up the process of application. Details of destination and purpose would be needed, and a window of one week in which to return home, lest they face a fine or worse.

The parallels between the government’s persecution of Rohingya and the trials faced by Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories are stark. As the Burmese government offers substantial rewards to settler communities, it simultaneously restricts the freedoms of Rohingya to such an extent that meeting even the most quotidian needs — emergency travel to a competent hospital, for instance — requires paperwork, bribes, delays, and the threat of refusal. In this corner of the country, for which foreign journalists and aid workers require special travel permits to access, the Burmese government has carved out a mini West Bank of the East, replete with roadside police checkpoints where paperwork is handed over by Rohingya and closely examined. Myriad other ethnic groups in Burma have felt the pain of not being Bamar, of not truly “belonging” in the country, but only Rohingya face this spectrum of restrictions. If the restructuring of the security landscape in northern Rakhine State is not as sophisticated as the Israeli project, it is only because the resources are not there; the extensive codification of control mechanisms on the Rohingya, however, demonstrates the intention is just as present.

When violence broke out in June 2012 and tens of thousands of Rohingya either fled or were herded into camps, groups monitoring the situation were quick to flag signs of ethnic cleansing — the apparently organized nature of attacks, the impunity with which mobs, aided by police, could level Rohingya villages and urban quarters and still face no punishment. Violence of this kind suggested at least tacit state backing for the intentions of the mobs, if not a higher degree of direct complicity. Those claims gained greater substance in March last year when coordinated attacks targeted the stores of food and medicine in Sittwe destined for Rohingya camps (and displaced Rakhine), as well as the cars and boats used by aid groups to deliver them. But the process had begun decades before. The stripping of citizenship removes all state protections for the target group, should they be there in the first place. Grievances go unaddressed because the stateless lack any forum to air them. In a context like this, it is not a legal black mark to isolate and target one group with restrictions if that group does not fall within the legal framework adhered to by authority. International law theoretically becomes the only safeguard, but the Burmese government has never shown an interest in abiding by that.

Communal violence that erupts amid political transitions is often explained away as a naturally occurring phenomenon that results from long-kettled emotions. These theories can never be wholly discounted, but they often overlook any hint of strategy, of a longer-term tactical ploy by forces operating higher than the civilian mobs that deliver the violence. In Burma, historical animosities provide something of a foundation, but a secondary process has developed whereby Rakhine have come to see the Rohingya as a scourge that needs ridding. A militantly exclusionary strain of nationalism propels this, largely through a siege mentality that developed in response to fears of both the spread of Islam across the Bangladesh border and of domination by the Bamar regime, but manipulated by the state to demarcate a Rakhine in-group and a subhuman Rohingya out-group. The Rohingya are stateless because they are not worthy of citizenship and its accompanying rights; their movement is restricted because they are a security concern; their population needs diluting because its growth presents an existential threat to the country. They are the target of dehumanizing speech from the political and religious leadership (“ugly as ogres” against the “fair and soft skin” of Bamar, one government official noted in 2007) that accentuates their supposed foreignness.

This is not a coincidental amalgamation of persecutory devices, but a multi-pronged effort at both weakening Rohingya security, and mentally colonizing Rakhine so that they consider themselves defenders of the land against a menacing Other. Once this is achieved they can be more easily mobilized as violent instruments of the state. To see the Rohingya day after day forced to hand over paperwork detailing their travel plans reinforces the sense that they require constant surveillance, and arouses suspicions of their objectives. The distrust, the fear and the resentment that grow provide the platform to view isolated individual acts, such as the rape of a Rakhine woman by Rohingya, as symptomatic of the intentions of the entire group. For Rakhine participants in the violence, the rape was the final piece of evidence at which the travel restrictions, the population dilution, and the stripping of citizenship had for years been hinting.

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The Na Ta La village project in Rakhine State appears to have been first mooted in 1988 by one Colonel Tha Kyaw, a leader in the junta-aligned National Unity Party. Included among a cache of leaked government documents published in a report by the London-based International State Crime Initiative that details historic state persecution of the Rohingya, the 1988 directive outlines 11 measures Colonel Tha Kyaw believed would weaken an increasingly powerful Muslim front in Rakhine State. His vision for the social reengineering of the Rakhine landscape read: “To strive for the increase in Buddhist population to be more than the number of Muslim people by way of establishing Natala [sic] villages in Arakan with Buddhist settlers from different townships and from out of the country.” It was contiguous with historic attempts elsewhere in the country to dilute populations that were either non-Bamar or non-Buddhist: in Chin State, which borders Rakhine to the north and is predominantly Christian, rights groups have documented the practice of forcibly converting poverty-stricken Christian children to Buddhism so that they can access Na Ta La schools they would otherwise be barred from attending.

It was several years after Colonel Tha Kyaw’s action plan that the first prisoners in Yangon were approached. In early October I visited a number of these settlements, both old and new, and spoke with their inhabitants. Some were still unsure about the reason for their being there, only that those who recruited them had painted a scene of rural idyll that easily bettered their squalid living conditions at the time. Others remembered more clearly talk of a “border area ethnicity development” project underway in a far corner of the country. Either way it seemed inviting. Stripped of its wider context, the Na Ta La scheme appears benign. But read as a broader system of restructuring and repopulation — and, in turn, depopulation of the target community — its true intent comes into view. Also on the list drawn up by Colonel Tha Kyaw were measures to “reduce the population growth of the Rohingyas by gradual imposition of restrictions on their marriages,” and to ensure their movement “from village to village and township to township” is only temporary and premised on official permission. Additionally, it sought “to forbid higher studies,” and to make sure that Rohingya “are not to be provided with citizenship cards by identifying them as insurgents.”

All of these measures, and more, have since been realized: in 1997, when the Sittwe immigration office restricted travel by Rohingya outside of their townships, later extended to other areas of the state; in 2005, when Maungdaw authorities restricted marriages of Rohingya; in 2012, when the violence resulted in segregation measures that meant Rohingya could no longer attend Sittwe University, the only higher education institution in the state; and in 2015, when the so-called “white cards” that Rohingya had been granted in order to vote in the 2010 elections were withdrawn, prompted by the agitation of ultra-nationalist Rakhine groups that frequently brand the Muslim minority as terrorists. And, of course, the Na Ta La villages themselves, which now form a network of nearly 50 settlements in northern Rakhine State. A recent report by the International State Crime Initiative, which makes a compelling argument that state persecution of the Rohingya is genocide in its nature and ambition, notes that as far back as 1995, a UN official told Human Rights Watch that Ministry of Health officials were using contraceptive injections on Rohingya returning from Bangladesh, to where they had fled following a pogrom in the early 1990s.

Persecution of the Rohingya is spun as a battle for survival — of the Rakhine ethnicity against foreign interlopers, and of Buddhism against a rapacious Islam. But there’s a sad irony to the support given by Rakhine to this campaign. The “Muslim problem” is one the Rakhine have looked to the central state to resolve. Yet statecraft in Burma since the military coup of 1962 has almost obsessively pursued one goal: how to rule over an unruly periphery. Over the decades, strategies have taken on various guises — the buying off of rebel armies through lucrative ceasefire deals, campaigns of military subordination of restive minority groups, and most pervasively, the “Burmanization” of ethnic societies through resettlement programs, the forced teaching of Burmese language in schools, and the appointment of ethnic Bamar officials to all the top administrative posts in non-Bamar areas. It is a way to institutionalize a sense of Bamar superiority across all pillars of authority in all corners of the land. The relocation of Bamar Buddhists to Rakhine State and the mixing of ethnic Rakhine within Bamar-majority villages advance’s the regime’s colonization of the State. The Na Ta La village project shouldn’t then be read solely as a means to dilute the Muslim population of northern Rakhine State in order to protect Buddhism, but as a strategy to extend central control over this remote region. Tackling the “Muslim problem” provided a front, easily sellable to Rakhine, with which to achieve those ends.

Using that framework to analyze the wider persecution of Rohingya illuminates a two-fold strategy for Rakhine State: first, and most simply, the regime does share the bitter hostility of Rakhine towards Rohingya, whom it sees as a residue of colonial rule that requires exorcising; second, communal unrest of the scale seen in 2012 aids the dispersal of state power into areas where it once lacked. To maintain the segregation of the Rohingya into camps, to keep Rakhine “safe” from Rohingya, the securitization of the region is needed. This means a stronger role for armed forces, the closer monitoring of people’s movement, the arbitrary enforcement of curfews or states of emergency — all control measures that bring Rakhine State further inside the government’s zone of influence.

Ethnic Rakhine have long fiercely resisted any designs on their state by the Bamar-dominated regime, for their nationalism was largely a response to attempted colonization of the state, first by the British and then by a military that persistently shunned any adherence to rule of law in its efforts to subjugate the region and its people. But so great is the supposed threat from Muslims that the Rakhine people have acquiesced in this latest wave of Burmanization that began with the Na Ta La villages and took on a new form with the post-2012 securitization of towns and villages.

That speaks to the deftness with which state propaganda has functioned, by framing local events in Rakhine within an Islam-obsessed global terrorism discourse, by constantly reminding Rakhine that their grandparents were massacred by armed Mujahid groups during the maelstrom of the 1940s, when World War II arrived in Burma and rival nations played disparate ethnic groups off against one another. And by explaining and repeating over and again that those Rohingya now attempting to claim citizenship, to exercise their rights to freedom of movement, are there to finish off the job their ancestors failed to do in the 1940s — to ensure that Rakhine State is finally “lost” to the government and to Rakhine people.

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When I visited the Na Ta La villages it was the tail end of monsoon season, and the days were punctuated by showers. One village close to the town of Buthidaung, a six- hour boat ride upriver from Sittwe, was populated by former homeless people who had been shipped out of Yangon in 1996 and organized into a new community. Like the others, they had arrived to newly built wooden houses, and were initially supplemented by monthly deliveries of food. Those rations stopped 18 years ago — all government assistance did. Having grown up in Yangon they had no farming skills; the father of one family of six said that he earned around $5 each day from casual labor. This year’s monsoon season had brought particularly fierce storms to western Burma, and many of the latticed wooden walls of houses had been torn by the winds, opening wide holes into bedrooms. The rains had collected into fetid pools all over the village that provided fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes — two villagers were racked with malarial fever and shook violently beneath thick blankets.

Two hours from this village, along a rutted road leading out into boggy fields where cattle and goats grazed, stood another village of 130 households populated almost entirely by former prisoners, and settled in 2004. The storm damage here was particularly noticeable — the wooden stilts used to prop up several houses had buckled, leaving them listing to the side. Many were abandoned. One man in his mid-30s explained that he had first arrived here from a prison in Maungmya in the southern delta region in 2004. He remained until 2011, when he was arrested for robbery and began a seven-year sentence. But a little over a quarter of the way in he was approached by prison guards acting at the behest of Na Ta La officials and invited back to the village. The headman of the village — himself a former inmate sentenced to three years for army desertion and released early in 2004, and whose scarred face and hands betrayed a life of combat in various arenas — said it was unlikely that anyone with a hefty sentence could participate in the Na Ta La scheme. One woman however later confided to a colleague that her husband had been released early from a murder charge and moved to the village, but for whatever reason he was no longer there.

When the prisoners had been approached years ago to gauge their interest in resettlement, they were told that should they break the terms of agreement and return to their hometowns within three years, they would be imprisoned again and their sentences extended. The objective was to keep them there — to make this network of Buddhist settlements a permanent feature of the landscape. The patterns of abuse that had taken many of these people to prison had been brought to this village: domestic violence was routine, and the police were called there regularly to break up brawls. The sharp whiff of alcohol kicked off the breath of a number of the men who trailed us, at midday, round the village. One boy, little over the age of 12, had deep gashes in his scalp and a swollen eye. A neighbor explained that his mother had recently beaten him with a rock.

The Na Ta La scheme isn’t the only one of its kind in Burma. Both the government and opposition forces have elsewhere shifted populations for self-serving goals. In the late 1990s the rebel United Wa State Army forcibly located tens of thousands of people from the mountains of northeastern Shan State to new territory along the Thai border, ostensibly to break their dependence on opium cultivation, but more likely to settle new arable terrain and expand the group’s sphere of control. In a bid to rupture networks of civilian support for ethnic armed groups and to further the Burmanization program, the regime has over the decades moved large numbers of Bamar into restive ethnic states in the country’s east and north, where it has fought on-off conflicts with rebels for over half a century.

But the Na Ta La villages are illustrative of a particularly cynical trait within the minds of Burma’s rulers. To aid the dilution of the Muslim population of northern Rakhine State and to reclaim the region as its own, the government exploited the destitution of its most vulnerable — those communities most easily bought off. In the village made up of former homeless, who battle yearly malaria outbreaks and barely scrape together enough income to feed a family, and who haven’t seen a penny from the state in nearly two decades, conditions are so dismal that everyone wants to return to whatever squalid patch of ground they left behind in Yangon 19 years ago. None however can afford the return journey. They are hostage to a grand vision of state building that ultimately denies them state protection and sees them as little more than easy pawns, made pliable through dint of their lack of agency. Any assistance that does now arrive comes with strings attached: parties campaigning for elections in Burma had visited the village in early October to erect campaign posters and hand out rice and cooking oil to those they knew couldn’t refuse it, and who might in return cast them a vote.

To get something approaching an accurate reading of Burma today requires a process of telescoping in and out, of contrasting grand narratives with hyper-local experiences. The international fixation on Burma’s transition, of which the November elections have been billed as the next step in democratization, if not the final leap to democracy, obfuscates the fact that processes begun decades ago in areas of the country little scrutinized by international observers will persist, regardless of whatever changes occur in government in the coming months. The manipulation of ethnic tensions has long been a principal strategy of Burma’s rulers, for it locks ethnic groups in a state of perpetual instability that the military can profit by.

The original Na Ta La villages were by and large built on land confiscated from the Rohingya, and therefore were deeply resented by Rohingya communities who could no longer work the soil and reap its produce. But these new settlers from central Burma and elsewhere in Rakhine State were also resented by local Rakhine who, while ideologically supportive of whatever strategy could weaken the Muslim population, knew that the scheme meant a further mixing of the Rakhine identity. And the Rakhine more recently resettled from Bangladesh have been gifted houses of a quality beyond the reach of most other Rakhine, thereby drawing ire from neglected communities among their own ethnicity, but also that of the Rohingya and of the older generation of resettled Bamar who, from their buckled wooden houses, wonder what became of their promises of a better life here. Burma’s rulers have been able to triangulate communal tensions in Rakhine State, as they have elsewhere, in a way that keeps each ethnicity there in a state of persistent antipathy towards one another. Local tensions then distract from the workings of their real nemesis — the central state — and weaken any prospect of a cohesive front of persecuted minorities that could rally together against it. This has been the regime’s crowning achievement, and its effects, both in Rakhine and all around Burma’s periphery, have forever stunted the country’s political and social development.

The Rohingya, numbering around one million in Burma, are of course the ultimate losers in this. They are legally barred from participation in political affairs, and such is the bitterness of nationwide antipathy towards the group that no party has spotlighted their suffering as a priority that a new Burma must address. Doing so would lose them a legion of supporters. The weight of sentiment pitched against the Muslim minority ensures that long after this phase of the transition they will continue to need permission to board a bus, to erect a house, to marry, to have children; or that, save for a concerted attempt at reintegration, the 150,000 confined to camps will live out their days there, unless they can be trafficked abroad.

But so deft are the machinations of power in Burma that Rakhine and Bamar, who have themselves been victims of endless manipulation, have helped to deliver this project. They do so because, as the logic runs, disenfranchising one group will elevate another. Left out of the equation is the hard fact that unless the entire hierarchy of power in Burma is radically overhauled, their gains will only ever be incremental, and the ruling elite will remain the final arbiter over what meager concessions go to whom. The architects of the Na Ta La plan cared little that the prisoners taken from their cells and transplanted into a malarial zone would continue to brawl each night, or that the homeless would again face the shame of unemployment and squalor. This wasn’t a welfare scheme but a ruse aimed at deepening fissures and driving communal resentment, and sold as a show of solidarity between the regime and those Rakhine fearful of a Muslim takeover. Its rupturing effect, like so many strategies of statecraft through the years, meant disparate groups would look anywhere but sideways to one another for solidarity. This is the great tragedy of Burma today, and its consequences will shape the country’s future trajectory long after the dust has settled on the elections.

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Francis Wade is a journalist based in London and Yangon. He is writing a book on Buddhist nationalism and political violence in Burma.


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