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Arakan State has undergone massive socioeconomic changes over the past 50 years, especially since the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power in 1988. It is worth noting that none of these changes have taken place with the consent of the Arakanese people, as Burma continues to be denied the democratic freedoms of expression, choice, and political participation during the rule of the oppressive Burmese military regimes.
The large majority of Arakan State's estimated 4 million inhabitants live in rural areas. These people make a living from fishing and farming, and rely heavily on the Kaladan and Laymro rivers for both. Locals get much of their food from these rivers and their tributaries – and, in coastal communities, from the ocean. Over 85 % of Arakan State's cultivated farmland (primarily paddy) is located along the Kaladan and Laymro river valleys. Due to a lack of good roads, the trade of both fish and agricultural products in the region is dependent on the use of these waterways.
Throughout its over 5000-year history, Arakan State has been largely reliant on agriculture, predominantly the production of rice. In fact, the area is one of Burma's two main rice producing regions, along with the Irrawaddy Delta. Since Burma's first coup d'état, the rice industry has been constantly interfered with by the authorities, to benefit the military as well as the powerful and wealthy.
Under current policies, farmers who once engaged in subsistence farming and sold any surplus to local villages are now forced to harvest crops at two or three times the traditional rate. They can only accomplish this by using excessive amounts of fertilisers and pesticides, which then significantly degrade soil quality. Farmers are then required to sell most of their yield to authorities at sub-market rates, and in many cases provide it for free to the military; crops are then sold to countries such as India and Bangladesh at the standard international rate.
A small amount of the rice produced does continue to be sold locally by independent farmers; however, these small entrepreneurs are subject to extortionate unofficial "taxes" enforced by military personnel in the area. Roadblocks are set up along transportation routes by soldiers who require passing traders to pay them in cash, gasoline or produce (usually rice). Those who do not or cannot pay risk beatings or even torture for refusing to comply with military demands. The navy has established a very similar system of checkpoints on the rivers; many civilian-owned boats have been destroyed at these points for failing to pay the 'tax'. The prevalence of military extortion means that many civilian landowners, even those in possession of hundreds of acres, live in poverty by international standards. It also means that the majority of profits made from farming and fishing go straight into the hands of the government, supporting further military expansion and contributing to the continuous human rights abuses.
Many so-called "development" projects in recent years have inflicted unprecedented damage on the lives of civilians in Arakan State. These projects include the Sitetway – Rangoon Highway, the Sitetway – Ann- Minbu Railway, logging in the Arakan Roma Mountains, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility, the Shwe Gas Project, and numerous hydropower facilities.
Such projects create a long list of problems including such human rights abuses as forced labour and forced relocation, as well as the destruction of natural environments and archaeological and cultural sites. The ongoing destruction of the Laymro and Kaladan rivers in the execution of such projects has severely affected the lives of thousands of civilians who survive on fish from these rivers and rice grown in their valleys. These developments have been implemented with total disregard for local people's livelihoods, while increasing and entrenching the military regime's power and yielding large profits for state-run companies. (link to development projects page)
Another important development is that Arakan has become increasingly militarized in recent years; this has occurred largely to secure the land, materials, and construction operations for the above-mentioned development projects. Between 1988 and 2006 the number of infantry battalions based in the Western Command, an area that includes Arakan State and Paletwa Township of Chin State, has increased from 3 to 43 battalions. There are a further ten specialized battalions (such as engineering and communications), three tactical command centres, and three navy bases. The Western Commander, headquartered in the town of Ann in Arakan State, controls many of the lucrative businesses in the state, as his permission is needed to secure most licenses and contracts. The correlative trend between development and increased military deployment, and its negative consequences for civilians, has been noted all over Burma.
As in other militarised zones of Burma, civilians in Arakan have experienced constant human rights violations and other mistreatment at the hands of soldiers who are able to act with almost total impunity. Numerous abuses have been documented including extortion, persecution, cruel and inhuman treatment, torture, extrajudicial killings and gang rape.
Arakan is presently one of Asia's least developed regions, and the Burmese military is actively perpetuating this underdevelopment. Opportunities for human development that will help the people, and not the military, are scarce; even the locals' traditional methods of survival are being denied to them as the military capitalises on the region's rivers and rice paddies.
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