It has been a month since the international community began watching in shock and horror as the democratically elected head of Myanmar was deposed from power, with the military installed in her place. However, this is not the first military coup or civilian protest that has taken place in Myanmar.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, wielded extensive powers even before the coup. By the virtue of constitutional referendums the military unilaterally approved, the Tatmadaw held 25 percent of all government seats, giving it the power to veto any legislation brought forth by any democratically elected government. The military also maintained control of key industries, which awarded the institution the ability to stay financially self-sufficient.
Since 2017, the Rohingya people have been at the receiving end of the military’s worst excesses. An attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARKA), which claimed the lives of twelve uniformed officers in August 2017, was retaliated against with mass murders, the burning of approximately 392 villages, and well-documented, gruesome testimonies of sexual violence and gang rape perpetrated by the military. These attacks were all targeted towards Myanmar’s minority Muslim population of Rohingya people.
Over 800,000 people have since moved to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, making it the world’s largest refugee settlement. The most vulnerable of these refugees are children, the elderly, and women, especially those who have survived sexual assault at the hands of the military. In interviews conducted by the Human Rights Watch, every survivor testified that their attackers were armed uniform officers. Besides instances of sexual violence and gang rape, women were also beaten, tortured, and forced to watch their families being killed. Human Rights Watch further assessed that owing to the stigma of sexual assault, it is possible that only a third of the survivors have spoken up.
At the time when Human Rights Watch spoke to these women, none of them had received medical help upon arriving at the camp. The New York Times has reported that women, in desperate attempts to restore their “honour,” are seeking ways to rid themselves of any children born of rape. Some women have died as a result of botched abortions, and child traffickers are now operating in the area, ridding women of unwanted newborns. Teenage survivors, as young as 15, who are pregnant have been shunned from their families at a time when medical care and emotional and physical support are most needed.
These documented cases of assault on Rohingya people were denied by Myanmar government vehemently in 2019. Repeated denials for cooperation with the Human Rights Council and mounting pressure resulted in the United Nations General Assembly adopting a resolution recognising the human rights violations and breaches of international law by armed forces in Myanmar towards the Rohingya population.
In a speech that was condemned by many, the now deposed Aung San Suu Kyi strongly denied any of the charges reporting human rights violations. However, despite denying any human rights violations or genocidal intent, she conceded that “disproportionate force” may have been used “in disregard of international humanitarian law.” She reassured the public that any possible war crimes would be investigated and prosecuted by a system of court, which was incidentally operated by the military itself. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), nonetheless, ruled against her and declared that the crime of genocide had been perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Both the ICJ and the UN have also recognised that the Myanmar government had disenfranchised the Rohingya by stripping them of their citizenship and consequently taking away their voting rights.
One must then wonder, should the protests in Myanmar succeed and the military be deposed from power, would this be in the benefit of Rohingya people, especially the women? Can a group of people who have been persecuted, tortured, and raped, and denied any recognition of their trials, fare better if Suu Kyi is reinstated?
Where once the popular support in Myanmar was in the favour of the military, the coup has now disenchanted the masses. Amid reports of violence against civilian protestors and an increasing number of casualties, civilians have begun expressing their regret for the way they perceived military action towards the Rohingya in the past. People are now afraid that if the military continues to remain in power “we will all end up like Rohingya people.”
Some Rohingya activists have used this newfound recognition from the people to bolster their position. In showing support for the protests, they hope that overthrowing the military will perhaps be the beginning of the end of their suffering. For others, the pain of their ordeal is too grave to reconcile with a movement that may end with their situation not being any better than before. For them, a brutal military regime is nothing new, and they are sceptical of whether Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy will afford them any rights should they be reinstated with full power.
While scepticism towards the latter group of people are not unfounded, one cannot refute that while Rohingya refugees may have avenues for lobbying for their rights under a democratic government, they have no scope of doing so under a military regime. This is especially true considering Bangladesh is too eager to relieve themselves of the refugees. Since the coup, the foreign ministry of the Bangladeshi government has only released one statement – short and succinct – without much material. This deafening silence is accompanied by their efforts to repatriate refugees, no matter who sits at the head of the government in Myanmar. For some Rohingya women, this could mean that they would be handed back to the men who raped them.
Regardless of whether Suu Kyi can redeem herself or not, there is nothing that will benefit Rohingya survivors more than a government that can provide them with a semblance of peace and stability. Refugees are living in crowded, unsafe, unsanitary environments where they have minimal access to health services. A study has shown that a mere three months of psychosocial support intervention significantly improved maternal health in a population where 15 percent of the participants were under the age of 16. What the Rohingya survivors need at this moment is a government that will acknowledge their pain and initiate construction of healthcare infrastructure that would attend to their needs.
It is difficult to put into figures the lasting implications of the institutional neglect that will plague the future of the Rohingya people. Survivors who have been ostracised from their communities could give birth to children raised without the parental care and resources of their communities. Survivors have mental trauma that, if untreated, can cause serious harm. With regard to these complex issues and the even more complex mechanisms that will be needed to resolve them, it is impossible to justify military rule being conducive for Rohingya refugee women.
While Aung Sang Suu Kyi may have been neglectful, or even complicit, to the brutality shown toward the Rohingya, there is a possibility that she may be coerced to change her position, should the Rohingya play a significant role in reinstating her to power. A rule by the military has no space for dialogue, whereas a democratically elected government, by its very nature, is more answerable to its people. Rohingya women’s needs have been neglected for far too long, and they are now at risk of potentially being handed back to the government that is the cause of their anguish. Therefore, restoring democracy in Myanmar could greatly help initiate a justice and reconciliation process that will greatly benefit the Rohingya women.
Arushi Ganguly is a Masters student of International Relations at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her interests are Feminist International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies, Human Security, Refugee Studies, Humanitarian Law and International Organization.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.