The Military Coup d’Etat in Myanmar Could Brighten the Outlook for the Rohingya by Dr Azeem Ibrahim

With the Rohingya of Myanmar we have learned to expect the worst, year after year, for more than a decade. But from their exile in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya may well look back to Myanmar with perhaps a little glimmer of hope, after the past year’s events in their native country. This new hope is, unfortunately, born of further tragedy, but it is no less real because of it. 

The domestic situation in Myanmar has changed drastically since November 2020. That was the time of the country’s last federal election, which the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, dominated as expected. For a number of reasons, some clear, others less so, the leadership of the Tatmadaw, the military of Myanmar, decided to illegitimately contest the election result in a manner very similar to the protests of Donald Trump in the United States. And then, on February 1, the military asserted itself by force: they arrested the entire leadership of the NLD and others in the hierarchy of the civilian government, installing their own leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, as head of a new military government. 

This kind of coup had been entertained as an ever-present possibility in the minds of people, both in Myanmar and in the international community, ever since the Tatmadaw originally relinquished some of their control of the country with the 2008 Constitution, which was supposed to set Myanmar on the path to democracy. But though expected, it was not accepted by anyone. 

To the surprise of the generals themselves, as well as to most international observers, the people of Myanmar have responded very robustly in their resistance to the coup. Large-scale protests took a couple of weeks to get off the ground, but once they did, they have been relentless and steadily growing in the months since February. The military crackdown has been brutal, but this only seems to have steeled the resolve of the protesters. It has reached the point where we are now in a very dangerous situation, with civilians across the country forming local militias to defend themselves from the ongoing abuses of the Tatmadaw, sending the country down a path to what may well end up as a full-blown civil war. 

The international response has also been surprisingly robust. Myanmar’s regional neighbours in ASEAN have all come out with full throated condemnations of the coup despite their historical tradition of keeping out of each others’ domestic affairs. Under the new Biden administration, the West has fulfilled its traditional role with respect to issues of democracy and human rights. Even China, Myanmar’s most-likely ally, has decided to remain neutral in the dispute between the military and the former civilian government, thus depriving the generals of their most-needed international alliance. 

With their leaders all under arrest, the organisation of the ousted civilian government was expected to crumble quickly. For the first two months of the coup’s new regime, that is what appeared to be happening. However, since April, they came back swinging. On April 16, they announced the formation of the National Unity Government of Myanmar, a shadow government that included the leaders of the previously elected civilian government. Also, crucially, representatives of every ethnic minority in the country—minorities which have been marginalised in the Burmese-dominated political process in Myanmar and then brutalised by the military for their dissent for almost the entire post-independence history of the country. This was the first time that a democratic alliance representing the ethnic Burmese majority and all of the country’s diverse minorities came together for a shared political project since independence. It is the best hope that genuine democracy may yet come to Myanmar—that is, if the NUG can overcome the Tatmadaw in this dispute. 

The Tatmadaw have the experience, capacity and inclination to impose their will on Myanmar by force and rule the country with an iron fist, just as they have done for decades. But they have never had to contend with such fierce opposition across the board. 

So how does this domestic chaos in Myanmar help the Rohingya? At first glance, it does not. Quite the opposite. The civilian government that was removed was at least nominally entertaining discussions with Bangladesh about allowing the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. Those discussions were dishonest and mostly empty political theatre, but at least they were happening. That committed the state of Myanmar to accepting the principle that the Rohingya had a right to return. Since the coup, the new military leadership has withdrawn from all such talks and has explicitly rejected that the Rohingya have any place in Myanmar. 

But then, as the anti-coup protests started ramping up in Myanmar during March and April, the Tatmadaw deployed the “anti-insurgency” tactics they had used to eject the Rohingya from the country against Burmese pro-democracy protesters in the heartlands. Everything that the Rohingya had reported of the abuses they had to endure at the hands of the Tatmadaw in their remote borderlands was now witnessed first-hand by Burmese civilians in Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw. An unexpected outpouring of regret and support for the Rohingya by the protesters and Myanmar’s civil society swiftly followed. While the Rohingya had been dehumanised and attacked by decades of military regimes as an “enemy within” that had to be “dealt with”, a sudden realisation now dawned upon the breadth of Myanmarese society that the real enemy was the Tatmadaw, those who kept brutalising people in the country for decades in the name of “security”. 

A few months later, after demands from the international community, the NUG, which was now organising the resistance against the ongoing military domination of the country, also invited the Rohingya to send representatives on the same basis as every other minority group in the country, despite them having been mostly physically removed from the territory of Myanmar. Furthermore, the NUG promised full repatriation. 

This is a huge step forward for the Rohingya. It does not improve their immediate physical situation, but it is the first time they have been recognised as a full and proper part of Myanmar by a significant authority in the country since their formal citizenship status had been degraded by the Citizenship Law of 1982, which formally excluded them from citizenship in the country of their forefathers. 

Material change to the fate of the Rohingya remains contingent on whether the NUG is successful in reversing the February coup. That is still a remote prospect for the time being. Not only is it remote, it is also dangerous, as the looming civil war would be an absolute disaster in terms of human suffering. However, at least now there is a future on the table where the Rohingya are recognised as a people and can take their rightful place in the country of their birth as normal and full citizens. This is no small thing. It bodes well not just for the Rohingya, but also for the future of their native Myanmar as a country. Hope can be a very powerful thing, and it can now drive the Rohingya through the dark days just ahead.


Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and author of Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide.