Poverty, political uncertainty go hand-in-hand in Arakan

The poverty rate in Myanmar as a whole is 25.6%, according to 2014 statistics from the World Bank, while Arakan State’s is 43.5 percent. In other words, Arakan has nearly twice the national poverty rate. That is a very concerning situation for the future, and it also shows that it is time the government implemented special plans for Arakan State.

By Tun Kyi (Kalabar) 31 Dec 2019


Tun Kyi (Kalabar) | DMG
Arakan State, located in western Myanmar, plays host to the Arakan Yoma mountain range to its east and seaports on its western flank. Arakan State sits in close proximity to India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, and borders Bangladesh, with a population of over 160 million. What I am trying to say is that Arakan State has a huge geopolitical market.
The waters off the Arakan State coast have significant natural gas deposits, and according to 2014 statistics, the population of Arakan State is 3,188,807 – 83% of that population is rural, and only 17% is urban.
Given the historical record, there is no denying that Arakan State was once a great nation with its own distinct ethnic, cultural and linguistic characteristics.
Today, Arakan State is the poorest of all states in Myanmar, and has been for many years. Ethnic Arakanese people have long been immigrating to work overseas, where they hope for better job opportunities. As a result, the population of Arakan State’s own ethnic majority has been decreasing every year, which has become a concern.
On the other hand, illegal residents have been increasing greatly, which is challenging the future of Arakan State. And the Arakan Yoma mountain range, which once had vast tracts of nature’s treasured forests, is now unsightly, with few forests remaining.
Though no one knows fully who has benefited from the pillaging of the Arakan Yoma, what is clear is that the Arakanese people have certainly not benefited from it. Taungup and Ann townships, nearest to the Arakan Yoma, have suffered flooding every year; deforestation has noticeably impacted the environment for the worse.
Arakan State’s geography is so advantageous that the region’s populace should, in theory, enjoy the fruits of its many natural resources, from fish stocks to forests and bountiful arable land. The resource endowment should, in theory, benefit both present and future generations.
Major foreign businesses have invested in Arakan State and many more are on the way, but most Arakanese people still languish in poverty, awaiting moneyed saviors who will create opportunities for them and for the development of the state.
Most rural populations are barely living their lives, impoverished and suffering from underdeveloped infrastructure, and neglected healthcare and education. They don’t know about the system; they don’t know about the political trends. But they have been struggling mightily just for food and accommodation; to make a living.
There are many international investments underway, such as in marble stone production, the Kaladan River port, the Tha Htay Chaung Hydropower development, the Shwe gas project inclusive of an oil transport hub, and the coming Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone.
While Arakan State is inevitably going to be a place of business for the world’s two most populous countries –  India, which owns the Sittwe-Kaladan port project, and China, a nation of nearly 1.4 billion that will soon take ownership of the Kyaukphyu deep seaport – Arakanese people, original claimants to their geography and its potential, have not had any significant stakeholding power whatsoever. To the extent that they have benefitted from recent years’ development in the region, it is mainly in the form of roads that barely last more than a couple of years, and wells that tend to be dried up before summer.
The poverty rate in Myanmar as a whole is 25.6%, according to 2014 statistics from the World Bank, while Arakan State’s is 43.5 percent. In other words, Arakan has nearly twice the national poverty rate. That is a very concerning situation for the future, and it also shows that it is time the government implemented special plans for Arakan State.
The 2008 Constitution gives the vast majority of power to manage the country’s affairs to the central government. The Constitution grants the states and regions, the original owners of their natural resources, few rights to benefit from or share in the profits made through these resources.
Currently Arakan State is grappling with high criminality, including the illicit narcotics trade. And Arakanese people and Arakanese political leaders are not allowed to be involved in issues such as increasing of illegal population. These are very worrisome for Arakan State and everyone should pay attention to them.
Since Myanmar gained independence, pearl and other marine product businesses have been shut down, salt production has been prevented and fisheries have been decimated by natural disasters, but little action has been taken under successive governments to address this troubling situation. Not only has every government failed to help local businesses in Arakan State, but also there has been a lot of corruption, severely hobbling local family businesses and resulting in Arakanese people becoming a mere pool of labor destined for overseas employment.
The government should assist with salt production, agricultural businesses and animal husbandry. Arakanese people’s inshore fishing and fish breeding businesses have suffered losses due to the tendency of offshore fishing boats to ply waters as close as one furlong from the shore; there has been no stopping them under every successive governing regime.
The rule of law is lacking in every part of Arakan State. Conflict is ongoing, forcing many civilians to flee their homes.
Arakan State is struggling amid poverty and conflict, while no one knows when Myanmar’s political transition will be complete. Besides poverty and conflict, ethnic Arakanese people’s birth rates are decreasing as they go abroad in search of work, and rising birth rates among illegal immigrants are directly challenging the future of ethnic Arakanese people and their state.
In the 2015 general election, although the Arakan National Party (ANP) won a majority in the poll, the Constitution did not allow it to form a state government. The government should implement a special strategy for the development of Arakan State as much as is necessary to give the state rights to decide, divide, and benefit from local natural resources.
In 2017, the Arakan Natural Resources and Environmental Network staged a protest along the route from Sittwe to Kyaukphyu for Arakanese people to be able to receive profits, make decisions, and manage the resources of Arakan State, but still those goals have not been realized.
Nationally, ethnic groups have been demanding a federal union and the right to self-administration for the states and regions. No matter what projects or investments are being planned, they will make no difference and provide no help to Arakan State and Arakanese people as long as Arakanese people can’t decide their own fate.
Current investments are there, but they only negatively impact the state. Only Arakanese people should decide their own future and should plan for the development of the state through a government they choose.
The issue of land confiscation is unresolved. According to the 2008 Constitution, the union government handles all the issues, which has caused delays; problems will continue to be neglected and corruption will persist. It is a loss for both the country and the people that a group of people in far-away Naypyidaw takes responsibility for everything.
Myanmar is highly diverse in cultures, languages and lifestyles. Forming a federal union will be beneficial for that, and states should be given self-administration rights in order to achieve a developed country. Then the elections will have meaning for every ethnic, and civil conflicts and poverty will end.
Regardless of projects worth billions of dollars, they will not benefit Arakan State and Arakanese people unless Arakanese people have their own rights. If anything, poverty and social conflicts might even increase.
The urgent issue is poverty; to create job opportunities for local Arakanese people, small businesses and investments of local citizens should be supported, and it is time the government took responsibility for providing help in finance, technology, and markets.
The development of the citizens in Arakan State should be first prioritized. In my opinion, founding vocational schools for peace, development programs, and long-term job opportunities will help build the human resources capacity currently lacking in Arakan State and will also help in reducing poverty, ultimately leading in the direction of development of Arakan State.