17 February 2021
Examining the situation after the recent military coup, Yanis Iqbal looks at what these events mean for the persecuted and oppressed Rohingya people.
The future of the Rohingya people seems uncertain. A predominantly Muslim minority group indigenous to a region on the western coast of Myanmar – historically referred to as Arakan and presently called Rakhine State – the Rohingya are not recognized by the Burmese state.
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military – known as the Tatmadaw – staged a coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. The military general now in power, Min Aung Hlaing, engineered the 2017 brutal crackdowns targeting Rohingya people, which resulted in the death of approximately 24,000 Rohingya.
In the summer of 2017, the Myanmar military began a systematic and comprehensive genocide, as termed by the United Nations (UN), toward the Rohingya community. The Tatmadaw – in conjunction with Buddhist extremists – engaged in a scorched earth policy, torching entire Rohingya villages, engaging in mass rapes of women and girls, and indiscriminately murdering civilians.
According to a survey by Médecins Sans Frontières, approximately 9,400 Rohingya were murdered in Rakhine State between 25 August and 24 September 2017, with at least 730 of the victims, children. Fearing persecution, an additional 700,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where their existence is still unsure. According to the Tatmadaw, the operations against the Rohingya were carried out in response to attacks by some members of the community on local police and military stations. While this may be true, the scale of the response was wholly disproportionate.
While the plight of the refugees is well-known, less known is that 600,000 Rohingya still remain in Rakhine, and they are perhaps even more at risk than those who left. As per a 2019 report by UN investigators, the Rohingya inside Rakhine remain in ‘deplorable’ conditions, and they face a ‘serious risk of genocide’. The report explicitly accuses the Myanmar military of continuing to ‘harbor genocidal intent’ in the treatment of the Rohingya and of renewed ‘war crimes’ including forced labor, torture against civilians, and gang rape.
The 2017 genocide was situated in a historical context, namely the Tatmadaw’s bloody history of ruthlessly persecuting Rohingya. The military has felt it necessary to divert attention from its corrupt structure of ‘khaki capitalism’ which consistently impoverishes the majority of the masses. This was accomplished by targeting the Rohingya ‘other’, as well as by promoting nativism through a Burman Buddhist national identity.
The first significant measure instituted by the military government to curtail the rights and freedoms of the Rohingya was the Emergency Immigration Act of 1974. This law introduced ethnicity-based identity cards that identified Burmese nationals. The Rohingya were issued Foreign Registration Cards, designating them non-nationals. This made the Rohingya stateless.
To consolidate these citizenship laws, a pogrom named Operation Nagamin (King Dragon) was carried out in 1978. This pogrom entailed military and immigration officials scrutinizing those living in border regions of Myanmar to determine ‘real’ citizens and ‘foreigners’, with the aim of routing out the Rohingya. It was later found out that the troops responsible for this census exercise were murdering and raping Rohingya in the villages.
The state’s targeting of the Rohingya through this pogrom eventually led to 200,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh as refugees. These massacres were repeated in 1991 through the State Law and Order Restoration Council – deemed an operation aimed at checking the status of the Rohingya in the border regions. This led to another wave of 250,000 Rohingya refugees between 1991and 1992.
Things remained unchanged under Suu Kyi (who refused to even use the term ‘Rohingya’) and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government. The NLD was a party that constructed electoral hegemony through alliances and support from Buddhist nationalist groups and personalities. Hence, a supposedly democratic political system was subservient to an ultra-Burman Buddhist nationalist agenda fundamentally infused with Islamophobic sentiments.
The persecution of Rohingya worsened under the ‘democratic’ rule of the NLD because the party had to pander to both the Tatmadaw (which remained powerful due to the constitution it had designed in 2008) and Buddhist extremists. Suu Kyi’s term saw the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya from all forms of democratic participation. They were denied the right to vote and were excluded from the national census.
In November 2019, The Gambia filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accusing Myanmar of genocide. A month later, Suu Kyi gave a testimony, defending her nation at the ICJ. She described the August 2017 genocide as a reaction to an instance of ‘intercommunal violence’ where the military was taking actions against ‘insurgents or terrorists’.
Suu Kyi’s testimony was a classic case of the ‘War on Terror’ narrative. Such a narrative attributes essential characteristics to the Muslim community – they engage in acts of terrorism, violent extremism, or possess radicalized views. The logical conclusion of this Orientalist discourse is the justification of increasing levels of violence against Muslims, who are perennially cast as a disruptive and dangerous cohort.
A New Political Force
Taking into account the murderous history of the Tatmadaw regarding the Rohingya people, it is highly likely that it will use its unmediated power to further repress the community. As the anti-military protests accelerate, it is important that it pay attention to the plight of the Rohingya. To this end, the movement needs to avoid concentrating its entire energy on restoring the civilian government of Suu Kyi; she was herself responsible for the mass murder of Rohingya.
What Myanmar needs right now is a new political force sensitive toward the demands of the Rohingya group. This already seems to be happening. People involved in the current Civil Disobedience Movement have publicly apologized for failing to stand up for the Rohingya. In a sense, the coup has made tangible the shared experience of military oppression of the Rohingya and Myanmar’s majority. What needs to be done is the political organization of this emerging solidarity in a revolutionary bloc.
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.