Aid groups and human rights advocates have warned the World Bank that a $100m development project it is planning for Myanmar’s conflict-riven Rakhine State could worsen tensions in the area.
Last Friday, the World Bank published the first details of a proposal to fund cash-for-work programmes and support small businesses in one of Myanmar’s poorest regions, with a plan to funnel these funds through the Myanmar government.
“It is difficult to imagine how meaningful recovery and development are possible in Rakhine without addressing the underlying human rights issues that currently impact every aspect of life for communities,” more than a dozen Myanmar-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) said in a letter to the World Bank’s Myanmar office.
The letter, dated April 9, was obtained by Reuters news agency.
The western state of Rakhine has been the site of a violent campaign by Myanmar’s military, which drove out more than 730,000 Muslim-majority Rohingya, a minority ethnic group in Rakhine that is denied citizenship by Myanmar and that faces severe restrictions.
The military says the campaign was launched in response to attacks by a Rohingya armed group in the region, which has seen the displacement of more than 30,000 people since late last year after intense clashes with the Arakan Army, an armed group that recruits from the mainly Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group.
The proposed Rakhine Recovery and Development Support Project would be the first major aid pledge for Rakhine State since the Rohingya exodus and a boost for Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has faced international criticism for her handling of the conflict.
A United Nations fact-finding mission, which has called for the prosecution of top Myanmar generals for crimes against humanity and genocide, said on Wednesday that it had seen no evidence that Myanmar was trying to resolve the crisis or facilitate the safe return of refugees.
The World Bank proposal stems from a meeting between Suu Kyi and the World Bank’s vice president for East Asia and Asia Pacific, Victoria Kwakwa, in July of last year.
Suu Kyi has said that development is key to resolving Rakhine’s multiple crises.
In written answers to Reuters, the bank said it had condemned violence in Rakhine State and was providing Bangladesh – where many Rohingya and others from Rakhine have fled – with support to address the needs of Rohingya refugees until returns could be voluntary, safe and dignified.
“At the same time, we do not believe the international community can simply turn its back on the development needs of people in Rakhine State,” the bank said, pointing to the “extremely pressing” needs there.
If approved by the bank’s board, the project would give poor and vulnerable people training and other help. It would support entrepreneurs with grants to create jobs and support the government’s ability to implement and monitor those activities, the bank said in a document posted on its website on May 10.
Myanmar’s system of checks for environmental and social risks “will need to be complemented and enhanced significantly” to meet the World Bank’s standards, the bank said.
“The State Counsellor requested in one of our meetings [that] the World Bank … use its global expertise to help create a ‘peace dividend’ by creating economic opportunities for diverse communities throughout Myanmar,” the bank said on Friday. “This includes livelihoods opportunities in Rakhine State for all communities if conditions of non-discrimination and secure access to opportunities can be met”.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said he was unable to answer a Reuters reporter’s questions via email.
Initial discussions about the project with activists and aid workers earlier this year sparked worries that an injection of cash could be counterproductive in the divided region, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and other Muslims remain under conditions that Amnesty International and other rights groups have described as “apartheid“.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a human rights group, said it had “broad concerns about the project” after a meeting with World Bank officials.
“It seems unthinkable that the project could be effectively implemented while these restrictions remain in place,” ICJ’s director for Asia and the Pacific, Frederick Rawski, wrote in a letter to the bank dated March 15.
If Myanmar did not address freedom of movement and other concerns, he added, “a large development initiative could exacerbate rather than reduce social tensions”.
NGOs said in the letter, which was seen by Reuters, that the World Bank would need to ensure Muslims in Rakhine had access to citizenship and freedom of movement. The letter also recommended that the project be independently monitored to make sure bank funds were “not enabling or supporting segregation”.
The World Bank said it was deeply concerned about the restrictions on the Rohingya and had raised these concerns with the government, according to Reuters.
“The project is being carefully prepared so that it does not reinforce or perpetuate movement restrictions or other forms of segregation, and that it creates new openings for social cohesion and positive exchanges between communities,” the World Bank said.