Will the Coup in Burma Be a Turning Point for the Rohingya People

August 4, 2021 Updated: August 4, 2021


The coup d’état in Burma (also known as Myanmar), earlier this year, may have dismantled the fragile foundations of the country’s democratic government, but the ensuing rise of a fervent pro-democracy civilian movement could be a turning point for the Rohingya population.

Burma was thrown into disarray on Feb. 1, when the Tatmadaw, Burma’s military junta, ousted the democratically elected President Aung San Suu Kyi and her government, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

They claimed that the party’s landslide electoral victory months earlier had been marred by widespread voter fraud.

The junta used the claims to take back control and plunge the country once again under military rule.

Their leader, Min Aung Hlaing, has since Aug. 1, declared himself Prime Minister of a newly formed caretaker government in an attempt to legitimise the military’s administration.

His declaration of multi-party general elections in 2023 forces Burma to undergo two and a half years of the martial rule instead of the initial one-year timeline.

Min Aung Hlaing
Burma’s military ruler Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Burma, on March 27, 2021. (Stringer/Reuters)

While it’s a crushing blow to Burma, the reality is that Suu Kyi’s democracy was already fractured.

Despite the country’s progressive transition towards democracy in the last decade, the military junta retained a firm foothold on power and Burma’s defective constitution still preserved junta control.

For example, 25 percent of seats in parliament were reserved for members of the military, which meant efforts towards constitutional reform and change were often vetoed.

The constitution also granted the junta rights to control the mining, oil and gas industries, and allow the Tatmadaw to enjoy a level of financial independence.

Burma’s democracy was further weakened by the violent repression of the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority residing in Rakhine State. For decades the Rohingya faced persecution and were denied citizenship rights, access to essential services, and endured blatant discrimination and repression.

However, during Suu Kyi’s term in government, the military launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population. They were brutalised and slaughtered. Their villages were razed to the ground, and many were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh to seek refuge.

Such atrocities attracted international opprobrium. Suu Kyi’s stature as an icon for democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize Winner was irrevocably tarnished.

Her failure to defend the indefensible was evident in excusing the genocidal actions of the military and refusing to condemn the jailing of journalists exposing the military’s actions.

The fractures in Burma’s democracy were exacerbated by the indifference and uncomfortable silence from locals. In contrasts sharply with the fervour of pro-democracy protests amassing in opposition to the coup today.

In some ways, it could help the Burmese grasp the struggles that the Rohingya have endured for decades.

Epoch Times Photo
Anti-coup protesters display placards and shout slogans as they protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Burma, on March 15, 2021. (AP Photo)

The fierce opposition to the coup suggests there may be glimmers of hope for the Rohingya to regain democratic rights.

The coup has united both the Rohingya, warring ethnic groups, and the people of Burma against a common enemy, the military junta.

The groundswell of support for a return to democracy suggests a greater realisation by civilians that their pro-democracy movement is only as strong as their weakest link.

If they hope for a better democracy, equal rights should be granted to all and not some.

The solidarity between disparate groups may in part be due to a generational shift, with a younger demographic taking charge of the pro-democracy movement. Many student unions and young activists have conveyed regret at their silence and inaction over the junta’s genocidal rampage of the Rohingya people.

Pro-democracy activists have also taken to social media to canvass solidarity for the Free Rohingya Coalition, which has tirelessly campaigned against the military dictatorship. The fading away of prejudices that have divided the country offers hope that the people of Burma are embracing diversity and peace.

Further, the release of a new, hopeful policy statement by the National Unity Government (NUG) of Burma on June 3, also covered the treatment of the Rohingya people.

The statement was drafted in the absence of Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. It includes the promise that if the NUG—the government in exile—returns to power, it will discard the 1982 citizenship law and grant Rohingya people full citizenship, as well as end human rights abuses, discrimination, and allow the full enjoyment of individual rights.

A protester in Burma
A protester holds a sign with an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they prepare to face off against security forces during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Burma, on March 5, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The promise was also made to repatriate Rohingya civilians who had fled to Bangladesh following the horrific military assault against them.

It also pledges to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Burma in relation to atrocities against the Rohingya.

The NUG has long been under international pressure over its treatment of the Rohingya minority, which may have contributed to this granting of jurisdiction.

While the statement could only be implemented if the NUG were to be returned to power, it is a significant shift in the attitudes and perspectives of how a newly governed democracy within Burma could look.

The statement now plays a crucial role in justifying the legitimacy and relevance of the NUG to the United Nations. Given the military ruler’s declaration of prime ministership earlier this month, the NUG will have a tough time fighting for diplomatic recognition. However, the statement may serve as a cogent force in this battle.

The proposed changes mean the Rohingya would be citizens rather than stateless; they would enjoy the same rights to vote, freedom of movement, access to services, the capacity to participate in their society, and recognition of themselves as “Rohingya” rather than the “Muslims of Rakhine”—another significant inroad towards recognition.

The commitment to justice, reparation, and elimination of all forms of discrimination are key steps towards casting aside the illiberal elements that have splintered Burma’s democracy.

Anjali Nadaradjane is a research assistant at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She has worked at think tanks in both Australia and Indonesia across law and public policy, and her works have appeared in numerous media. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anjali Nadaradjane
Anjali Nadaradjane
Anjali Nadaradjane is a research assistant at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She has worked at think tanks in both Australia and Indonesia across law and public policy, and her works have appeared in numerous media.