Myanmar’s Coup Has Led Many to Rethink Their Previous Exclusion of the Rohingya

By: Ronan Lee

March 12, 2021

Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

It was a coup that brought military violence to the streets of Myanmar’s most populous cities, rather than genocidal military brutality against the mostly Muslim Rohingya, that has led many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority to a late realization that the Rohingya have been telling the truth about their mistreatment all along.

Throughout much of the last six weeks, I have received a steady stream of messages from people in Myanmar declaring regret for their previous inaction and willful blindness to the Rohingya’s plight. 

This growing recognition has come much too late for the more than 9,000 Rohingya men murdered by Myanmar’s military during 2017. Too late for the thousands of Rohingya women and girls raped by the military during its campaign of terror. It will be small comfort for the almost 800,000 Rohingya forcibly deported from their ancestral lands in Myanmar, or those who endured decades of human rights violations living under Myanmar’s apartheid system. But it is better this realization has come late than not at all. Media reports of anti-coup protestors carrying signs inclusive of the Rohingya and recognizing the Rohingya’s mistreatment point to a genuine rethinking now underway, at least for some. There is a long way to go. 

Media reports of anti-coup protestors carrying signs inclusive of the Rohingya and recognizing the Rohingya’s mistreatment point to a genuine rethinking now underway, at least for some.

Among the saddest episodes in Myanmar’s denialism of its official mistreatment of and military violence toward the Rohingya came in 2016, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page responded to accounts of widespread military rapes of Rohingya women and girls with a post declaring “Fake Rape” alongside photos of Rohingya women who alleged they were raped by Myanmar soldiers. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi personally made the post or it was uploaded by an advisor remains unclear, but her refusal to delete it provided a clear message to Myanmar’s public that she did not believe Rohingya accounts of military atrocities—and neither should they. 

Aung San Suu Kyi has long been Myanmar’s most popular public figure, and her denialism has immense political power. By encouraging people to disbelieve Rohingya accounts of military atrocities, Aung San Suu Kyi failed the Rohingya community while simultaneously contributing to the military’s sense of impunity. The consequences of this impunity are now on display daily across Myanmar. After getting away with murder of the Rohingya, the military has been emboldened to undertake its coup and crack down on anti-coup protestors with awful violence. Tragically, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political enabling of the military when they terrorized Rohingya communities was not a one-off incident.

Aung San Suu Kyi failed the Rohingya community while simultaneously contributing to the military’s sense of impunity.

During the 2017 crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi similarly dismissed media accounts of shocking human rights violations against Rohingya civilians by referring to “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about events in western Myanmar. For many in Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, statements like this from a figure of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature provided the license to disbelieve accounts from the mostly Muslim Rohingya about the military violence they suffered. This undermined domestic calls for military restraint. Often, the public dismissed Rohingya claims as unbelievable with a too common statement posed as a question: “If the crimes against the Rohingya were so widespread and savage, where is the evidence, where are the photos, the videos?” The military’s targeting of journalists and anyone documenting their crimes today provides a ready answer—as with the anti-coup protestors, the military arrested or murdered Rohingya who documented their crimes. 

The military’s 2017 anti-Rohingya violence was genocidal, and UN investigators from the Human Rights Council also believe it involved war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2017, my interviews with recently arrived Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh left little doubt about this, making it clear why so many fled Myanmar so quickly. One newly arrived Rohingya refugee told me: “Among my four sons, one was killed by the military in front of me, and one arrested, and one of my daughters, adult daughter arrested but I don’t know where she is.” This was far from an isolated account, and the military campaign against Rohingya civilians has rightly become the subject of cases before the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Sadly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s denialism enabled the military to commit their crimes without even basic levels of political scrutiny within Myanmar.

As with the anti-coup protestors, the military arrested or murdered Rohingya who documented their crimes.

Even before the awful violence of 2017, the Rohingya’s circumstances on their ancestral lands in Myanmar were grim. Amnesty International’s report Caged Without a Roof documented the conditions forced upon the Rohingya by Myanmar’s authorities as apartheid. There are today around 140,000 Rohingya confined to concentration camps within Myanmar. Victims of internal displacement since 2012, they are prevented from returning to their homes, or even freely leaving camps that are surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Those Rohingya who remain in their Myanmar village homes endure shocking rights restrictions that impact every aspect of life. But conditioned by decades of military-controlled state media that portrayed the Rohingya as foreign interlopers, most in Myanmar will not have taken the time to learn about this. Because of tight restrictions on the Rohingya’s ability to travel outside their village homes, most in Myanmar will likely never have even met Rohingya. 

Myanmar’s majority will likely be unaware of the Rohingya’s ancestral ties to the Rakhine state area, once a multi-ethnic and multi-religious trading kingdom on the Bay of Bengal. Many among Myanmar’s majority will certainly also be unaware the Rohingya were uncontroversially recognized as legitimate citizens of Myanmar (then Burma) during the democratic era following independence in 1948. Rohingya served in the national parliament and could hear Rohingya language broadcast on the Burma Broadcasting Service’s radio station. They almost certainly will not have known that Myanmar’s longest-serving democratically elected Prime Minister U Nu told a 1954 radio audience, “The people living in Maungdaw and Buthidaung regions are our nationals, our brethren. They are called Rohingyas. They are one of the same par in status of nationality with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. They are one of the ethnic races of Burma.” After the military seized political control with a coup in 1962, the Rohingya’s circumstances changed dramatically for the worse. The Rohingya’s rights were steadily undermined, and they have endured genocidal crimes within Myanmar, including multiple large-scale forced deportations. 

In the weeks since Myanmar’s most recent coup began, anti-coup protestors—often from the country’s majority Bamar community, a Buddhist group—for the first time are personally experiencing the kind of sadistic violence that Myanmar’s military long made a routine part of life for the Rohingya and others among the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, whose populations often live in Myanmar’s borderlands. Myanmar’s military has brought its ruthless violence from the borderlands to the metropole, and Myanmar’s majority, united against the coup, are experiencing many of the same military tactics frequently regarded as too awful to believe when the Rohingya described their experiences. 

Anti-coup protestors are likely experiencing violence at the hands of many of the very same soldiers that participated in the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya.

The military greeted peaceful urban anti-coup protestors with live fire, using army snipers to murder activists, brutally beating others, and targeting medical staff. One video widely shared on social media shows soldiers forcing ambulance workers to kneel beside their vehicle before horribly beating them and trashing their ambulance. A nightly internet blackout ensures the military’s terror continues after dark, when there are widespread arrests of protestors, supporters of the civilian administration, and journalists. A number of those arrested, including a prominent member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, were tortured to death while in detention. 

Anti-coup protestors are likely experiencing this violence at the hands of many of the very same soldiers that participated in the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, with the notorious 33rd, 77th, and 99th Light Infantry Divisions having been deployed in Mandalay and Yangon. The coup has shown many among the country’s Buddhist majority who unquestionably followed Aung San Suu Kyi that the compromises she made with the military will never lead the military to retreat from politics and have only contributed to its sense of impunity. For many anti-coup protestors, a return to the pre-coup status quo is unacceptable, and they are campaigning for a Myanmar fully free from military involvement in politics. 

There is a long way to go, but for the first time in many years, the Rohingya are part of a mainstream conversation about their place in Myanmar’s future.

Members of Myanmar’s anti-coup movement are fast coming to terms with the inconsistency of their silence when the military brutalized the Rohingya, while they now call on the international community to help remove the same military from political power. Rohingya leadership was quick to condemn the coup and express their support for the nationwide protest movement. There have been powerful displays of Rohingya solidarity with the anti-coup movement, including candlelight vigils held in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and a strong statement condemning the coup from the Rohingya Women’s Network.

The coup and the military’s shockingly violent response to peaceful protestors has demonstrated to many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority the credibility of Rohingya accounts of military atrocities. There are clear signs that some among Myanmar’s majority Bamar and Buddhist communities are rethinking their previous anti-Rohingya stance. Sadly, it has taken the Myanmar military bringing similar violence to that unleashed on Rohingya communities to the streets of Mandalay and Yangon for this rethinking to start. There is a long way to go, but for the first time in many years, the Rohingya are part of a mainstream conversation about their place in Myanmar’s future—and that is another important reason for the Rohingya and the international community to strongly oppose Myanmar’s military coup.

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