The military coup in Myanmar is terrible for the Rohingya

Aung San Suu Kyi, the former State Counsellor of Myanmar. Image credits: The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

The saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. In Myanmar, the government is learning a different lesson: allying with the military junta is a double-edged sword, and now it’s their time to be on the receiving end of the military’s relentless capacity to abuse power in shocking ways. 

A military coup resulted in Aung San Suu Kyi, the former State Counsellor of Myanmar and other members of her civilian government being placed on house arrest, while the military assumed power for a year, citing allegations of election fraud as the reason behind their decision. In the ensuing chaos, the military suspended the internet as people took to Facebook and Twitter to express their anger, while thousands marched in support of Suu Kyi.

The suspension of the internet had only further stirred the controversy, in a country where the online media remains a relatively new phenomenon, and digital literacy has not yet been attained. International outrage has seen support for Suu Kyi grow. She is the poster girl of Burmese democracy, and those with memories of the nineties will recognise the fight she has once again been plunged into. 

Yet, memories of the past ten years mustn’t be lost either. Myanmar’s transition to democracy did not signal an end to violence. Instead, where it concerned Rohingya Muslims, it escalated. Mob violence against Muslims became common in cities such as Mandalay, and it was abundantly clear how violent and hateful discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims was allowed to pass. 

In the summer of 2017, the Myanmar military began a series of ‘clearance operations’ that resulted in a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims fleeing as their villages were burned and they were massacred in their thousands. Whilst the military might claim they were seeking out insurgents, testimonies from soldiers admitted that they had been ordered to “shoot all they see”. There are countless examples to paint a story of how the Myanmar military behaved. Consider the brutal execution of 10 Rohingya men at the hands of soldiers and Buddhist neighbours in Inn Din. A shallow grave was dug for the bound men; two were hacked to death while the others were shot. The men were left in the large makeshift grave, until their bodies were discovered by Reuters.

The role of the civilian government in this cannot be ignored. While there is a legitimate claim that the military has always been independent of Suu Kyi’s government, what cannot be ignored was how she and her party, the National League for Democracy, aided the genocide by continuously denying it happening, minimising countless atrocities, failing to prosecute guilty soldiers, and then repeatedly shifting the blame onto the Rohingya. Even at the ICJ hearing brought forward by the state to Gambia on possible genocide in Rohingya, Suu Kyi refused to admit such genocide occurred.

Mobashra Tazamal, a researcher on global Islamophobia, told me there was “tacit approval from the civilian government in staying quiet… It should be pointed out how the government enabled this. The military never let go of power and was never prosecuted.” Despite this, she cautioned against those interested in minority rights in Myanmar believing this coup to be remotely positive. The shift of power back to the military, like a swaying pendulum, has put in charge the very people responsible for the genocide. 

The narrative of election fraud is an intriguing one given what happened in America. And while it is almost certain that the military invented a narrative to reclaim power, international bodies should not overlook that there were actual, significant issues with the election itself. Election fraud is most certainly a nonsensical argument, but voter suppression isn’t. The Rohingya people were not allowed to vote or stand in the election – tied to the persistent refusal of the state to recognise them as an ethnicity of Myanmar. 

The relationship between those with power in Myanmar and internet firms is also one that deserves scrutiny. Those unaware of the historical context might interpret this as the latest internet crackdown from an authoritarian regime, yet this could not be further from the truth. In Myanmar, social media was a tool of violence against the Rohingya. In 2014, the city of Mandalay erupted after fake news was spread regarding a Muslim man raping a Buddhist woman. In the build-up to the summer of 2017 when the ethnic cleansing began, military personnel were found to have made fake celebrity accounts on Facebook which would garner hundreds of thousands of followers and repeatedly spread anti-Muslim content. 

For too long, Facebook was slow in confronting the scale of the problems in Myanmar. Buddhist extremists were perfectly able to manipulate the platform to spread hate at accelerated rates. The mechanisms built up by Facebook to counter this were flimsy and often, easily bypassed. This exposed the limitations of a western company trying to understand the complex ethnic tensions in another part of the world. It became abundantly clear that Facebook had to do much more to tackle disinformation. And Myanmar itself is a case study for those who believe social media sites should not be censuring extreme views. What happened in Myanmar was a product of ethnic tensions fuelled by available technology of the internet age. 

The obligation of the international community to respond to this cannot be underestimated. Tazamal pointed out that a precedent could be established if this military coup is allowed to settle. Indeed, one could argue the coup itself was following the American precedent due to the shared claims of election fraud. The threat of severe sanctions coupled with local pressure may be enough to successfully drive off the military coup.

This coup mustn’t succeed. It will be disastrous for everyone, the Rohingya included. But no-one should pretend that this civilian government was respecting democracy. It didn’t look at the Rohingya as people worth protecting from dehumanisation and unspeakable levels of violence. Whoever wins in this, the Rohingya stand to lose whilst they remain entirely disregarded.

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