Top business executives in Myanmar on Friday donated more than U.S. $12 million to rebuild ravaged northern Rakhine state in response to a call from de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to invest in rebuilding the devastated and impoverished region.
They pledged 17.7 billion kyats (U.S. $12.8 million) at an event in the capital Naypyidaw for the government’s newly created Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD).
Among the donors were Aung Ko Win, chairman of Kanbawza Bank; Zaw Zaw, chairman of Max Myanmar Group of Companies; Tun Myint Naing, chairman of Asia World Group; Maung Wate, chairman of Mandalay Business Capital City Development and Say Pine Company; Aung Moe Kyaw, chairman of International Beverages Trading Company Group; Chit Khaing, president of Eden Group of Companies; Nang Lang Kham, executive director of KBZ Group of Companies and director of KBZ Bank; and Khin Shwe, chairman of Zaykabar Company Ltd.
“We will do our business [in Rakhine state] by realizing the country’s long-term strategy,” said Aung Moe Kyaw.
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged the corporate leaders on Friday to invest in beleaguered northern Rakhine state where recent violence has emptied ethnic villages and driven more than 580,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh where they are staying in refugee camps.
“Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi is urging us to create a business zone and an agriculture zone in Rakhine state,” said Khin Shwe of Zaykabar Company Ltd., a Myanmar conglomerate with interests in construction and telecommunications.
“She is also urging us to build houses and create jobs for people, including businessmen who can live in the state,” he said. “For local people, she wants us to build infrastructure, such as roads for better transportation. Some roads have already been built along the Mayu mountain range [in northern Rakhine], so she wants us to continue doing development work in the state.”
The executives will meet with Aung Tun Thet, chief coordinator of the UEHRD, an organization chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, to discuss how to invest in the state’s development and promote stability there.
President Htin Kyaw formally created the UEHRD on Tuesday as a way for the private sector, local nongovernmental institutions, civil society institutions, partner nations, United Nations agencies, and international NGOs, to work together to implement projects in all sectors to develop the largely impoverished and ethnically and religiously divided state.
The committee is tasked with overseeing the provision of humanitarian aid, coordinating resettlement and rehabilitation efforts, carrying out regional development, promoting lasting peace, and arranging audits of funds from the state and local and foreign donors.
Other members of the agency include vice-chairman Win Myat Aye, who also serves as minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, chief coordinator Aung Tun Thet, and information and communications director Kyaw Myaing.
In a report on Oct. 12, Aung San Suu Kyi announced the creation of the committee and its mission to accomplish three main tasks in Rakhine state — the repatriation of those who fled to Bangladesh and the effective provision of humanitarian assistance; the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees; and the development to the region and establishment of durable peace.
“This enterprise has been established with the aim of allowing the Union government and all local and international organizations to work in all sectors and all strata of society,” she said in a statement.
The Myanmar military unleashed a brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslim civilians in northern Rakhine in late August following deadly attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) to find the militants and those who collaborated with them.
Rights groups, the United Nations, and some of the more than half-million Rohingya who left the region have accused soldiers of committing atrocities in northern Rakhine.
Last month, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to begin a process to repatriate the refugees under a 1993 agreement that allows the return of Rohingya who can prove residency in Myanmar.
‘Trust and understanding’
In a related development, Maung Maung Ohn, former chief minister of Rakhine state and an opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker representing Ann township, stressed the need for all people in the multiethnic state to resolve their differences to ensure that the development work will be a success.
“To do development work in Rakhine state, it is important to have the trust and understanding of local people, including ethnic people and Muslim Bengalis,” he said, using a derogatory term to refer to the Rohingya who are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied Myanmar citizenship.
“If we do development work, it will be destroyed and wasted if the two communities fight again in the future,” he said. “We must give priority to having stability in the region first, then creating jobs for them to survive, and then doing development work.”
Widespread communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine in 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya who were sent to refugee camps near the state capital Sittwe. About 120,000 Rohingya remain in the camps.
Tensions between the two groups have increased in recent months with Buddhist mob attacks on Rohingya in various towns.
Maung Maung Ohn also cautioned that those who live in the region must remain on alert in case of additional attacks by ARSA.
“We can have terrorist attacks in the future at any time because the terrorist groups have not been totally destroyed, and they are waiting for the right time to do it again,” he told RFA. “Because we can’t underestimate [the recurrence of] terrorist attacks, we always have to be alert.”
Maung Maung Ohn said that even though current Rakhine state chief minister Nyi Pu and government minister Win Myat Aye are performing humanitarian work in the region, local residents still want more security.
“It would be great if the government, military, border police, and security guards could work with these ministers to ensure the security of local people,” he said.
Maung Maung Ohn also cautioned that the government needs to take care when determining which Rohingya refugees to accept back into the country.
“The Myanmar government already said it will accept the refugees who fled to Bangladesh, but we need to work very carefully on checking whether they really lived in Rakhine or not,” he said, adding that the international community should work with Myanmar on this endeavor.
Refugees return from Sittwe
Ethnic Rakhine residents of northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township who fled to Sittwe during the recent violence have returned to their homes, Tin Lat, deputy secretary of the state government, said on Friday.
Only Hindu residents who fled alleged attacks by Muslim militants have remained in the Sittwe displacement camps, and they will return to their villages when the government arranges houses for them to live in, he said.
“We now have only 1,600 people in the camps in Sittwe, although we had more than 6,000 before,” he said. “About 1,500 of the 1,600 are Hindus and ethnic Maramagyi [an Indo-Aryan ethno-religious minority group]. Only about 100 are ethnic Rakhine.”
The government had to set up 31 refugee camps in Sittwe after the Aug. 25 ARSA attacks, though only five remain in operation now, Maung Maung Ohn said.
“Hindus are still living in the camps because they said they have no homes to return to as their houses were burned down,” he said.
ARSA militants invaded Hindu villages in Maungdaw in late August, rounded up residents, killed about 45 people, and dumped their bodies in mass graves, according to Hindus and the Myanmar government. They also abducted eight Hindu women and eight children and took them to a refugee camp in Bangladesh.
The government pays those living in the camps 1,000 kyats (U.S. 72 cents) a day, Maung Maung Ohn said.
It will provide 20,000 kyats (U.S. $14.50) and a 9,000-kyat (U.S. $6.50) boat fee to refugees who are allowed to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh, he said.
The U.N. estimated that some 500 Hindus fled to Bangladesh after the Aug. 25 attacks, and some 30,000 Hindus and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Maungdaw sought refuge in other areas of Rakhine state, according to the online journal The Irrawaddy.
According to 2014 census results, Hindus make up only 0.5 percent of the population of Myanmar, where 88 percent of the people identify as Buddhist and 4.3 percent as Muslim.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt, Thin Thiri, and Wai Mar Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.