Is religion the Problem – Or is it Power and Resources?


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Almost every country in the world has some kind of human rights issue to be dealt with. They range from the huge atrocities of places like North Korea and South Sudan to the seemingly smaller but still highly important issues over migrants and voting rights in western countries. Sometimes it can be difficult for even the most conscientious reader and thinker to keep up with all of the issues taking place around the world at any one time. Consequently, the plight of the Rohingya minority in Burma has tended to be overlooked, and when it is focused upon, however briefly, has also tended to be misunderstood.

Many would argue that the Rohingya are the subject of an almost genocidal hatred from other, more populous groups in Burmese society. They have been attacked and killed in large numbers and had entire villages burned down. They have been shelled by their own government, who accuse them of being rebels or outlaws, and they have been forced into camps for internally displaced peoples. And in many of the articles discussing this issue, one fact is made to stand out above all the rest – the Rohingya are Muslim, and Burma is a primarily Buddhist country.

The attacks on Rohingya have thus been seen as an example of religious hatred – particularly noticeable as it is perpetrated by followers of the Buddhist religion which is usually so strongly associated with peace and passivity in the west (although this is an image that has previously been shown to not always be justified, with the violence that the Buddhist government of Sri Lanka pursued against the Tamil population). This has been a common viewpoint because this is the simplistic way in which many of us in the west view the rest of the world – if there is trouble, it must be because the people have some kind of irrational hatred for one another, because of ethnicity or religion or some kind of historical grievance.

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In truth, there is some religious aspect to the fighting in Burma, and it is certainly true that some Buddhist monks who should behave better have roused the population in pointless anger against their Muslim neighbours. But to only focus on this aspect of the conflict misses out a number of important dimensions that we often don’t like to talk about – including corporate power, natural resources, and money.

The Rohingya live in Arakan state, also known as Rakhine after another ethnic group that live in the region (although they are Buddhist rather than Muslim). This coastal region, which is next to the equally troubled Chittagong district of Bangladesh, happens to be rich in natural resources, including offshore oil and gas. This has made it an attractive area for international investors from countries like China, who want to build oil and gas pipelines to help support their large population and its need for energy. This pipeline is due to make a lot of money for the autocratic Burmese government, but the Rohingya and their desire to hold on to their land stands in the way of their desires. Thus, they have played the Buddhist and Muslims against each other, and used the confusion and conflict as a way to steal in and grab the land they want.

This story tells us a number of things: that despite the recent positive signs coming out of the country, Burma is a long way from overcoming the troubles it has faced in recent years; that we need to pay as much attention to these far-flung corners of the world as we do to places that are more central to our concerns, like Ukraine; and that rather than immediately dismissing conflict as religious or ethnic, we should always look deeper and ask ourselves – who stands to make money from this fighting? Deep down, conflict is almost always related to the desire of the rich to exploit the poor, and the Rohingya case, despite having some religious elements, is really no different.


Article prepared by John Wish

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