The western state of Rakhine, in Myanmar, is one of its least developed. Over one-third of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, live in Rakhine. The World Bank has estimated poverty incidence in Rakhine to be highest in Myanmar at the rate of 78%.
The Naga areas in Myanmar suffer similar, if not more, acute poverty. The Nagas are also a religious and ethnic minority in the country even though, much like the Rohingya, have (had) elected representatives.
Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, Saskia Sassen, contends that the violence that has affected the Rohingya can be understood deeper through an economic lens than the religious-ethnic one used till now. Her research suggests that land grabbing by the military in Myanmar has long been taking root, with people on the land replaced by foreign investors in mining, extractive agriculture, geothermal projects etc.
Small landholders, notes Sassen’s research, of all persuasion in Myanmar have been evicted from land, unable to establish their ownership. This eviction, observes Sassen, is freeing up land and water resources for large scale extraction for monetization.
Religious persecution, withdrawing citizenship based on debatable political claims and resulting human rights abuse quickly become tools to uproot the powerless for the benefit of power holders within a polity.
Land laws, administered by a rigid hierarchical structure, that have allowed this large scale land grab also apply to the Naga Self Administered Zone in Myanmar. If the violence against the Rohingyas is justified, other minorities also face a real threat of the same.
Nagas have the past experience of persecution, like forced labour, replacement of churches with Buddhist pagodas, traditional Naga clothing replaced by the Burmese sarong, etc. Nagas also occupy a land known significantly for the resources available both overground and underground.
On the Indian side too, apart from the State of Nagaland, Nagas are faced with the persistent threat of land encroachment and displacement. In Assam, for instance, Nagas struggle with establishing ownership (with land patta), depending often on claims of indigeneity (much like the Rohingya in Myanmar) and have been reduced to a poverty-struck, religious and political minority. This is made worse by threats of land encroachment from the State under the garb of elephant corridors, tiger reserves or hydrocarbons mining.
The condition of Nagas in Manipur is not to be left too far behind but their numbers and political organization gives a semblance of protection.
In the midst of the larger trends of corporate land grabs in the South-South East Asian region, supported by the State, is it fruitful for Nagas to fight each other instead of solidifying their historic position of strength through a unified national discourse?
Perhaps time is not the best suited to tell. Nagas are in a position to learn from the Rohingya experience, express solidarity with suffering minorities and strengthen their political order to protect their fragmented peoples. Political reconciliation today is no more an option but a compulsion.
Other observations can be shared at firstname.lastname@example.org