Japan’s top envoy to Myanmar said that economic development is an answer to Rakhine’s conflict and that Tokyo is considering providing aid for the state.
“If there is economic development, I believe that there will be no conflict,” Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama said ahead of a Japan-backed investment fair in Ngapali.
The first Rakhine Investment Fair will be held on February 21 and 23, supported by the Myanmar Investment Commission and the Rakhine state government, and co-organised by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
Despite its natural resources and strategic location, Rakhine is among the poorest in the country. The state’s poverty rate – according to a World Bank report – is 78 percent, almost double the national rate of 37.54 percent. All communities in Rakhine suffer from poverty, poor social services and a scarcity of livelihood opportunities, the Rakhine Commission stated in its August 2017 report.
Commercial projects are scarce: there are oil and gas pipelines currently running from central Rakhine to China’s Yunnan province. Chinese state-owned CITIC Group is leading a consortium to negotiate with the government on a proposed deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone in Kyaukpyu. Last year, the transport ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with India to appoint a private operator for Sittwe Port.
Mr Maruyama said conflicts are the first thing which springs to mind when one hears of Rakhine, thus it is important to “settle those matters” and “at the same time, economic development is also important.”
“The objective of Japanese government and Japanese firms is for the comprehensive development in Myanmar, including the politics, the economy and other areas. There is only one approach for meeting that objective – it is to cooperate [in terms of both] government-to-government and private sector-to-private sector to solve those issues”, said the ambassador.
To that end, Japan will throw its weight behind Rakhine’s economic development, particularly improving road connectivity and access to electricity via Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
“If there is economic development, I believe that there will be no conflict.” – Ichiro Maruyama, Japan’s ambassador
According to Mr Maruyama, Japanese investors are interested in agriculture, fishery and tourism sectors in Rakhine but have not made any investment decisions. The state government will work with those businesspeople after the fair to move forward any potential interest.
Obstacles abound. Poor infrastructure and security issues are the key deterrents for Rakhine to attracting private investments. The ambassador did not mention human rights risks for businesses as a key challenge.
“We can’t do anything if there is no road and electricity. That is why Japanese government will provide ODA to fulfil the need of infrastructure,” he explained.
The emphasis in development is in line with Japan’s approach. Last February, Tokyo announced a US$20.6 million funding in humanitarian assistance to address the ongoing human rights crisis in northern Rakhine, where an extensive military crackdown in 2017, following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, prompted about 730,000 Muslim refugees to flee into Bangladesh. The two projects, the embassy said via a press statement, are to “improve humanitarian and development situation in Rakhine State with the approach of the humanitarian-development nexus, which is strongly advocated by the government of Japan.”
Critics said pledges of humanitarian assistance are alone insufficient and that development should not take precedence over human rights concerns.
In addition, there are risks for private investors to be implicated in human rights violations detailed in the report by the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. One risk is the alleged appropriation of land which belongs to the refugees. The report included instances of land confiscations.
Rakhine State Investment Fair will be held from February 21 to 23 in Ngapali Beach, Thandwe.