Can a Successful Counter-Coup in Burma End the Rohingya Crisis

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Burma (Myanmar) is in a state of violent uncertainty as protesters and the junta compete for Burma’s future that will either be a nod to the past’s brutal military dictatorship or a new and reformed democracy spearheaded by the new generation of Burmese youth. Over 61 protesters are estimated to have been killed since the February 1st coup d’etat, which ousted the internationally disgraced but democratically-elected state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi. Protests have shown little sign of letting up as three more demonstrators are reported to have been killed on International Women’s Day in the wake of nighttime raids on alleged protest movement leaders. Six more demonstrators were reported killed as of Thursday, March 11th.  Protesters have been repeatedly gunned down in street demonstrations and military raids across the country. As reported by Amnesty International, videos across social media have emerged showing security forces beating protesters in detention, shooting at bystanders in their balconies for filming, and firing upon protesters in demonstrations in what amounts to extrajudicial killings. Many of the gunshot wounds have been recorded on the head, showing an intent to kill by security forces. The deaths of the U Khin Maung Latt and Zaw Myat Linn of the National League for Democracy died after alleged torture following police and military raids on their homes. These are the latest pro-democracy political figures to be killed while in detention. Former police officers who escaped from Burma into India have claimed in a BBC interview that the junta is ordering the killing of protesters and opposition leaders. The junta has threatened future relations with India if the officers are not deported. If deported, the safety of the officers would be in serious question given the killing of high-profile politicians while in custody. 

Trade unions, business owners, and civil servants have joined the opposition protest, threatening to shut down the state in a general strike. The internal pressure from all aspects of Burma’s society could lead to a military escalation in violence in the coming days and weeks. The latest train workers’ protest was met by live rounds and detentions. Swift and cohesive regional and international pressure outside of the United Nations Security Council is necessary for a united front of domestic resistance and international backing against the military junta to be successful in preventing a military escalation. Weak global cohesion and responses, especially with China’s veto power in the Security Council, could lead to a prolonged internal conflict, more deaths, and human rights violations. A global response should be formed between the U.S., the European Union and led by South-East Asian partnerships.

In light of the demand for an international response is a Twitter campaign by the protesters that acknowledges their complicity and unwillingness to accept their government’s response/role in the Rohingya crisis. The protesters and Burmese people can no longer deny the humanity and history of violence against the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities. The killing of protesters, nighttime raids, and torture carried out by the Burmese military against counter-coup demonstrators, politicians, and opposition leaders is a clear sign for the Burmese youth that the military, sanctioned by the former government, carried out the mass killings and the possible genocide against the Rohingyas.  In an incredibly delicate period, Burma could see the momentum of the opposition collapse without concrete regional and global response. The Rohingya are especially at risk if the military were to take absolute power and isolate the country. The same military units that are alleged to have carried out war crimes against the Rohingyas have been deployed to protest hot spots, with many participating in the killing of protesters. The regional impact could see a fresh wave of displaced persons across the border into India and Bangladesh, the latter being the traditional temporary escape point for the Rohingyas. Thailand has started its preparations for a cross-border refugee crisis by stepping up border patrols and establishing a refugee center. 

Rohingyas and Islam in Burma

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim ethnic group who primarily live in the Rakhine State near the border with Bangladesh. Their relationship with Burmese authorities and neighboring communities has a long history of oppression and otherness based on ethnoreligious differences. The military government passed The 1982 Citizenship Law that effectively rescinded Rohingya citizenship and restricted their internal movements. The Rohingyas stateless identity allows for legality in persecuting them under the framework of an illegal foreign intruder. Discriminatory trope campaigns by far-right Buddhists have effectively developed widespread mistrust and dehumanization against the Muslim minority, which resulted in the possible genocide of Rohingyas and attacks on Muslims across the country. As a Buddhist majority nation, Burma has an active population of ultra-right Buddhists, including in the Rakhine state. This has set the tone for repeated conflicts with the Muslim minorities for decades, leading to killings, mob riots, as well as social and economic competition between the two groups, particularly against the Rohingya. The government, civilian or military, has always sided against the Rohingyas and the various other minority groups. The 1982 Citizenship Law, competition, and anti-Islam sentiment in Burma effectively isolated the Rohingya socially and economically, leading to food, health, and water scarcity. The denial of their human rights and Burmese citizenship has excluded the Rohingya for governmental representation and voting. The exclusion has allowed for repeated violent military operations that are hidden from much of the general population. 2012, 2015, and the ongoing crisis that started in 2017 has brought some international attention, but the United Nations remains deadlocked. The state-owned media and the celebrated, democratically elected president were able to deny any human rights violations with credibility for the general population. Much of the military’s actions were hidden or denied via state media and in the United Nations by then-state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi. The narrative from the state on its treatment and military operations against the Rohingyas can no longer be hidden after the military junta’s violent crackdown on dissent.

Citizenship and Peacebuilding 

Suppose the international response is timely and robust enough to allow for a return to democracy in Burma. In that case, the issue of the Rohingya crisis can be brought into the political process in reforming the new post-coup government. The anti-coup demonstrators are a new generation of Burmese that now fully grasp the violent nature of their own security forces and the ousted government. If they are to be successful, this movement could mean forming a new enhanced democratic government that dramatically changes Burma’s direction in favor of sweeping democratic reform, especially for minority groups. This could allow for full citizenship and rights under Burmese law. The granting of citizenship and representation in Nay Pyi Taw would, over time, end the period of mass killings, rape, and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. The dramatic shift could also cause immediate violence and ethnic clashes in the Rakhine state between ultra-right Buddhists and the Rohingya. Peacekeeping forces from neighboring Buddhist majority states would have to be deployed to prevent a spike in ethnoreligious violence and clashes. A peacekeeping force could only be deployed if the military coup fails to gain complete governance power. An issue created is how the peacebuilding process would be played out between the Rohingyas and the broader Buddhist majority, especially for those involved in ethnic clashes. The second issue is the military’s willingness to give up power while knowing that charges of human rights violations are on the table in the Hague. These issues are critical for human rights, religious freedom, and human security for both the Rohingya and Buddhists. 

Reconciliation 

Building dialogue between the Muslim and Buddhist sects is vital to ensuring broad human rights are protected for each ethnoreligious group of Burma. The granting of citizenship is necessary, but so too is acknowledging the immediate violence that can be sparked among ultra-right Buddhist communities, groups, and the Rohingya. A bridge that can gap the understanding is the shared experience of violence at the hands of the post-coup military broadly across Burma. Education is vital for fostering shared understandings of each group’s position and place within Burmese society. As the opposition is victimized by the military, so too are the Rohingya. The demonstrators have acknowledged this reality. The acknowledgment of suffering acts both as an understanding of shared trauma but also a receipt for humanity given by the Buddhist majority to the Muslim minority. This is a place that dialogue can be created to foster national unity for humanitarian and democratic reform that benefits each group within Burma. 

In the case that democracy protesters are able to achieve victory, the military will likely be presented with war crimes charges stemming from their actions against the Rohingya on top of the killing and torture of each counter-coup group. Possible genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity are the charges that the military junta understands would be presented to them by the post-coup government and international comunity. The navigation between holding those accountable and reconciliation is critical for preventing the military from doubling down on its efforts to take control and avoid accountability for their crimes. A way to avoid this from taking place is making the policy of going only after the decision-makers within the military command groups who orchestrated the mass killings of the Rohingyas and ordered the use of live rounds on protesters. The policy would have to be publicized and made readily available to all ranks of the military. This would, in effect, allow the military to keep its structure, prevent a power vacuum, and hold the true persons accountable for their crimes rather than the average footsoldier. This approach would allow for the enlisted, junior, and career officers to keep their positions, which would make siding against the upper echelons of the military and command teams involved with crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings more likely. This is a learning lesson from the Iraqi military’s disbandment and the bureaucracies following the U.S. Iraq war which created a power vacuum that Iraq is still dealing with. The repercussions from the military junta doubling down on its efforts to steal power or a collapse of the military are a risk that could put Burma and its neighbors in an environment that is far worse than isolated punishment for decision-makers. The anti-coup protest movement, if not abandoned by the world, could be used to end the Rohingya crisis.

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