Myanmar's coup stalls settlement of Rohingya saga
Hope exists in growing ethnic unity
Shortly after Myanmar's military coup on Feb 1, a boat packed with Rohingya refugees left Bangladesh. Ten days later, the refugee agency UNHCR reported that the vessel was adrift in the Andaman Sea. It appealed to maritime authorities to provide swift assistance. In late February the vessel was found in Indian waters. Of the 81 people on board, eight had died. A diplomatic spat between India and Bangladesh followed. Neither country wanted to take responsibility for the group.
This sad episode underlines the tragic and inexcusable fate of the Rohingya: unwanted, unrecognised, and housed in crowded and sub-human camps in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, with problematic access to basic services and livelihoods.
Before Myanmar's military coup, reasons for serious concern about the future of the Rohingya minority had been expressed for decades. These concerns have now increased even further. Desperation continues to grow, leading many to risk their lives crossing the seas in rickety boats, trying to reach other countries.
The news about the coup delivered a severe blow to the 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar and the more than one million in Bangladesh. The same military that suppressed and abused the Rohingya for decades and drove hundreds of thousands out of Myanmar, is now in charge of the entire country. What hope can the Rohingya now have for safe and sustainable lives in their homeland?
"We are extremely fearful. We do not know what can happen next," Bangladesh-based refugee poet Mayyu Ali wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.
In January, there had been hope. In Rakhine state, a lull in the fighting between the military and the Arakan Army had been holding for two months, bringing much needed change for all those who had suffered during two years of warfare that saw indiscriminate and disproportionate use of violence.
That lull was used by an ethnically diverse group of Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities to issue a Declaration by the Diverse and United Communities of Arakan, intended to guide them in their joint efforts to achieve peace, stability, development and equal rights for all in Rakhine state.
Right now, the resistance to the unlawfully imposed post-coup government remains strong throughout Myanmar. Many ethnic armed groups and political parties have either joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) or have warned the military not to attack peaceful demonstrators in their areas.
But in Rakhine state, with a population of around 600,000 Rohingya, the situation is mixed. The response has been more muted, particularly in the central and northern parts of the state.
Rakhine's largest political party, the Arakan National Party (ANP), said it would work with the military regime in order to protect Arakanese interests. In turn, a Rakhine was given a seat on the new Union State Administrative Council (SAC) set up by the military.
The ANP's decision was widely criticised and 47 Rakhine-based civil society groups issued a statement urging the ANP to reconsider, saying that they opposed a group that seized power without the people's consent.
The military also appointed U Than Tun as a member of the Rakhine state SAC. He is a nationalist, well known for his advocacy against the Rohingya as well as against UN agencies and international NGOs. He strongly opposes repatriation of Rohingya who are now in Bangladesh.
In another move, the military released Dr Aye Maung, a prominent Rakhine politician and leader of the Arakan Front Party, who had unjustly been convicted for treason in 2019.
Dr Aye Maung is a prominent xenophobe who has tirelessly campaigned against the Rohingya. In 2012, his party's magazine opined that "we will go down in history as cowards if we pass on these [Rohingya] issues to the next generation without getting it over and done with".
For the Rohingya this means that their fate is now in the hands of the same military that has been oppressing them brutally for decades, while ethnic Rakhine leaders who are staunchly anti-Rohingya have returned to the foreground. Reports about further tightening of restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement are already circulating.
The Arakan Army (AA), another major player that until recently engaged the military in the most severe armed conflict of the last few decades, has indicated that it considers neither the military regime nor the unlawfully deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government as actors who take Rakhine state's interests to heart. The AA is sitting on the fence, probably waiting to see which of the two is more likely to support its quest for greater self-determination in Rakhine state.
Shortly after the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing gave a speech, saying that efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh would continue. This was welcomed by the foreign minister of Bangladesh, who insisted that regime change in Myanmar would not impede repatriation.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing's assurances were no doubt inspired by the need to deflect international criticism. Since 2017, when his armed forces killed and maimed thousands of Rohingya and drove 750,000 across the border, nothing has been done to improve the situation of the Rohingya who still live in Rakhine. Their lives under a horrific system of apartheid have worsened, despite an order by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2020. Both the armed forces and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's government should be held accountable for this.
In short, the conditions for the secure, dignified, and sustainable voluntary return of the refugees in Bangladesh are not in place.
It is imperative that all domestic and international parties who now engage with key players in Myanmar, including with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (parliament) and the civil disobedience movement, raise the situation of the Rohingya. There is every reason to do so. Although many of Myanmar's ethnic minorities have suffered similar fates, what the Rohingya have been going through for decades is the worst manifestation of Myanmar's underlying problems.
On a positive note, in the country's civil disobedience movement more people are now speaking out against discrimination against ethnic minorities. The voices expressing regret for not acknowledging the terrible suffering of the Rohingya earlier, are becoming louder. This is part of the growing realisation that people have too often fallen for the divide-and-rule policies of successive military regimes.
This growing realisation has to be nurtured. In the end, Myanmar will not be able to transform unless it recognises that it needs to have an urgent and inclusive domestic conversation about what being Myanmar means and how its rich diversity can be embraced. The past must give way to a renewed vision for a shared future.
Laetitia van den Assum is a diplomatic expert, a former Dutch ambassador and also former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by Kofi Annan. Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador of Thailand and former elected member of parliament.