Troubled Rakhine touted as tourist attraction

Deceptive calm: Tourists relaxing at Ngapali Beach in Thandwe, Rakhine State. — Reuters

Deceptive calm: Tourists relaxing at Ngapali Beach in Thandwe, Rakhine State. — Reuters

YANGON: Organisers of a summit in Myanmar’s crisis-hit western state of Rakhine are this week pitching to investors its plentiful farmland and fishing grounds, tourist-ready beaches and historic temples.

The event’s website describes the “untouched opportunities” available in the strategically located region, close to large markets in India and Bangladesh.

But a session at the fair will also be devoted to how to invest responsibly in the state, from which about 730,000 minority Rohing­ya Muslims fled an army offensive in 2017.

A United Nations fact-finding mission last year said the military campaign, which refugees say included mass killings and rape, was orchestrated with “genocidal intent”.

Myanmar denies the charge, saying its offensive was a legitimate response to an insurgent threat and that it is welcoming the refugees back.

Myanmar hopes the Rakhine State Investment Fair – the first of its kind – will bring money into the impoverished region.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said economic development is the key to addressing the state’s long-standing religious and ethnic tensions, is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech today.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi last month pledged to make Myanmar more investment-friendly as she opened a separate investment summit in the capital Naypyitaw.

But her government remains under pressure over the 2017 exodus of refugees to Bangladesh and the plight of hundreds of thousands more Muslims still living in camps and villages inside Rakhine, where their movements and access to healthcare and education remain restricted.

A separate conflict with Rakhine rebels that escalated in December has seen aid agencies blocked from reaching many areas.

“It’s quite extraordinary that this investment fair is on, even though large chunks of central Rakhine are now off limits to prying eyes,” said Laetitia van den Assum, a retired Dutch diplomat who was a member of a commission on Rakhine led by the late former UN chief Kofi Annan.

The investment fair is organised by the Rakhine state government and Myanmar Investment Com­mission, with backing from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro).

More than 350 investors will mingle with local entrepreneurs and officials at the Rakhine tourist hotspot of Ngapali beach, discussing proposals to farm soft shell crabs or package cashew nuts.

“The Rakhine issue has tarnished the country’s image. But the fair will change the international view of Myanmar,” Htoo Min Thein, secretary of Rakhine’s investment committee, said in an interview carried by the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

“A goal of the fair is to ensure the long-lasting peace, stability and progress in the state through investment,” he said, adding that many areas of the state were unaffected by conflict.

Asked about human rights concerns, Kazufumi Tanaka, Jetro’s managing director in Yangon, said the organisation would advise Japanese firms on responsible investment practices.

Jica’s Myanmar office also noted the need for responsible development in Rakhine, and said it hoped the fair would promote development in the state that would lead to stability. — Reuters