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The Myanmar Coup and the Rohingya’s Future

18 Mar 2021
By Iqthyer Zahed
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: sadi richards

Would there be any difference in the treatment of Rohingya populations if a military government or civilian government ran the state? With Rohingya repatriation serving as a flashpoint of the Myanmar coup, invoking global responsibility to protect this population seems long overdue.

Democracy in Myanmar stumbled again when the military came back into power through a coup d’etat on 1 February 2021, the same day as the proposed commencement of a new Parliament session. The Burmese military ruled the country for nearly half a century, whereas democratic civilian government rule ran for less than two decades. Though the media considered the period of 2011 to 2015 a democratic transition period, it was nothing short of continued military rule.

Myanmar’s constitution of 2008 reserved more power for the military than for an elected civilian government. This is because the military managed to capture three important ministries under their control – home affairs, defence, and border affairs. The recently deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, could do little to rule the nation state, but she did get a clear signal of an upcoming military coup, considering the fact that all the most important law enforcement departments are in the hands of the military. So why did Military Chief Aung Min Hlaing need a coup?

Aung Min Hlaing realised very well that the “game of democracy” was not for him and his military-backed party, the United Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which could never seem to win an election due to the groundswell of public interest in a return to democracy. This was very evident in the results of the November 2020 election where USDP gained a mere 33 out of 478 seats, which is eight fewer seats than they won in the previous election in 2015. Thus, the army brought forward the false accusation of election fraud without any evidence.

This willingness to fabricate the truth is similar to the false accusations the military made against the Rohingya genocide in 2016, and again in 2017, where they blamed the fictitious Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attack for forcefully expelling the Rohingya from Myanmar and capturing their lands. It is also very possible that the Army chief was feeling threatened for his own security after his impending retainment in July 2021. These have attracted much attention with cases in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in which jurisdiction counts were made against military personnel.

The military’s relations with Suu Kyi’s government were not smooth at all, so if the army personnel accused in the ICC are charged, there is a chance they will be arrested and placed into the hands of a political rival, such as the NLD government. The chances of such arrests of military personnel are very slight, but this prospect still cannot be ignored. In response to such high-profile controversies, Suu Kyi’s government had intended to amend the country’s constitution, something her government failed to do in its first term in power. The Myanmar army never allowed it to happen because it reserves veto power for any constitutional amendments. Additionally, the military owns two major corporations, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), which trade in various sectors, including minerals, gemstones, copper, clothing, and telecommunications. Thus, General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup is also about saving his stakes in business and protecting his ill-gotten gains of possessions and wealth.

It is also important to consider whether there would be any consequence to Rohingyas depending on whether a military government or civilian government ran the state. The arrangements for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya ethnoreligious group were formulated during the time of the first army dictator Ne Win, and every successor has had the same formula for the expulsion of the Rohingya.

The international community and Rohingya themselves expected Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s hybrid democratic government to resolve the Rohingya crisis by returning their citizenship rights and accepting them in the country with dignity as an ethnic group of Myanmar. Thus, severe opposition was expressed around the world when it was revealed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government deployed more than 70 army battalions consisting of 30,000-35,000 soldiers to carry out ethnic cleansing on Rohingya people.

The military did their job as ordered. They expelled close to 742,0000 innocent Rohingya civilians – driving them into Bangladesh, which is one of the largest instances of forced migration in the world to date. Thus, the Rohingyas could not expect any more leniency from the so-called democratic government of Myanmar, as this was the same military that carried out the genocidal atrocities against the Rohingyas.

Despite this, coup leaders appear to be utilising the Rohingya crisis as a political tool to assuage Western leaders. In his first speech after the coup, General Hlaing said, “we will start Rohingya repatriation soon.” As well, General Hlaing has hired Israeli and Canadian lobbyists to improve Myanmar’s relationship with the US and publicise their willingness for Rohingya repatriation. However, this presents as another trick, as he never mentions the return of Rohingya’s citizenship rights revoked by the Citizenship Law of 1982.

The current political crisis is a shame for Western leaders who completely failed to judge Myanmar’s politics. Even after the 2017 genocide, the UN and EU were confused and reluctant to impose any severe pressure on Suu Kyi’s hybrid civilian “democratic” government due to fears she would lose a dominant position in the government and over the Burmese military, a position she never had. They therefore prioritised the democratic transition of Burma over the prevention of atrocities against an entire ethnoreligious group, the Rohingya people of Myanmar.

The bilateral trade portfolio between the EU and Myanmar was worth more than €1.55 billion in 2016. The EU came forward with massive funding for Myanmar in 2013 and became the third-largest investor and were calling their generosity “Responsibility to Help.” The EU realisation of responsibility to help Myanmar’s democratic transition eventuated when the funding package was processed, even after the Myanmar government had carried out the massacre on the Rohingya just a few months earlier.

Interestingly, the Western leaders remembered their “responsibility to help” for democracy promotion but forgot their “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) the Rohingya people from crimes against humanity. The recent Burmese coup shows that the Western strategy in dealing with the Rohingya crisis was wrong. It will be interesting to see the initiatives global leaders will undertake to restore democracy in Myanmar. The US, UK, EU, and Canada imposed selective and comprehensive sanctions after the recent coup in Myanmar. In a strategic sense, China will benefit from these sections, as Myanmar’s alienation from the West is in China’s best interests.

The UN Security Council met on 2 February 2021 to issue a joint statement condemning the Myanmar Coup. China again stood as Paukpaw or big brother of Myanmar and vetoed the joint statement. As far as China is concerned, it does not matter who is in power between the Myanmar military or a democratic government. China has managed good relations with both leaderships. Myanmar is crucial to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and thus China has continuously provided Myanmar with international security assistance. The Myanmar military junta hardly fears international pressure with China standing firmly beside Myanmar. US President Joe Biden mentioned “the world is watching” in his brief on new sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar. We are all eagerly wanting to see the world acting rather than watching.

Iqthyer Zahed is a Doctoral Fellow of the School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences of University of New England, Australia. His current research focused on geopolitics, Rohingya crisis and Myanmar’s politics. He can be reached via or

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