Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.
This installment reflects conversations with Rohingya residents of refugee camps in Bangladesh about the coup in Myanmar. Camp residents’ views were collected by Shabbir Ahmad and other members of a team of Rohingya researchers during a recent community feedback collection project. The opinions expressed here are the views of the authors and camp residents, not those of any institution with which the authors are affiliated.
The Rohingya community of Myanmar has been isolated and persecuted for decades, leading to waves of mass displacement, isolation, and resistance. The situation of the Rohingya deteriorated further into crisis after the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in 2015, starting with a 2016 crackdown and culminating in the massive 2017 violence that displaced over 700,000 people.
Refugees in Bangladesh believe the situation could worsen even further under the current junta, creating new risks for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar and indefinitely delaying any prospect of a safe repatriation for those displaced. According to one camp resident: “The democratic government didn’t do well for us Rohingya. However, the current conditions will be even worse for us, and maybe for everyone in Myanmar.” According to another, “We Rohingya people don’t expect anything positive to come from the military coup. We know very well that the Myanmar Army is merciless and doesn’t feel afraid of committing injustice.” The greatest fear for many camp residents is that repatriation at a large scale will be impossible as long as Myanmar remains under the control of the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. In recent comments, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing affirmed these concerns, reiterating once again that the Tatmadaw does not recognize the identity of the Rohingya people or their right to return home. As long as the junta remains in place, there is little possibility of forging solutions to the outstanding political, legal, and justice questions surrounding the Rohingya crisis.
But there is another dimension of the coup in which an unanticipated, positive change has emerged: There has been a wave of social and political reconciliation between Rohingya and other Myanmar people. Though the situation remains formidable both for Rohingya in Myanmar and for those who seek to return from Bangladesh, certain social and political fault lines that have been present throughout Myanmar’s recent history seem to be shifting.
Emerging Grassroots Solidarity
After the first large-scale protests against the coup took place in Yangon on Feb. 6, Shabbir Ahmad, a young Rohingya social activist and educator who currently lives as a refugee in Bangladesh, met with several other youth. They decided to use Twitter to express support for the anti-coup protesters within Myanmar. And they have been at it ever since.
At first, Shabbir and his friends’ tweets received little attention, but they persisted. The Tatmadaw’s crackdown on protesters grew increasingly brutal, and Shabbir watched as civilians across Myanmar were afflicted by violence similar to that committed against Rohingya in 2017. Many in Myanmar began to recognize the magnitude of the Rohingya people’s suffering as they experienced indiscriminate violence firsthand themselves. Rather suddenly, according to Shabbir, “hundreds of Twitter users began apologizing in comments under my tweets. They expressed regret for not supporting Rohingya during the Tatmadaw’s genocidal campaigns, for misunderstanding our plight, and for being afraid to speak up. It was remarkable for us to finally feel their support.”
Shabbir continued posting prayers for the protesters’ safety and security, sharing condolences for those killed in the protests. Four months after the coup, he still posts solidarity messages and photos from the camps nearly every day under his Burmese name, Naing Oo. (Rohingya and others from minoritized ethnic groups in Myanmar often have two names, one in their mother tongue and one in Burmese.)
Shabbir’s most viral Tweet to date was a photo series of refugees whose bamboo and tarpaulin huts burned in the recent devastating March 22 fire that left 45,000 refugees without shelter. “Despite losing their homes and possessions the night before the photos were taken, my subjects were eager to be photographed squatting atop the ashes and rubble of their shelters while making the three-finger Hunger Games salute that has become emblematic of the Myanmar anti-coup resistance movement,” Shabbir described. “Their determination to show solidarity during their own moment of loss struck Myanmar Twitter users, dozens of whom apologized to the Rohingya under my post. Some expressed regret, shame, and grief.” Shabbir tried to reply to each comment in order to make personal connections.
In the past, Shabbir said, “We Rohingya lamented our inability to build a good relationship with other Myanmar people. We never felt any support from them, even during our most difficult times. But since we began voicing our support for the coup protestors, we have felt a big shift in the relationship between the communities.” This includes elders and others who don’t use social media but have heard from others about the online reconciliation. “Everyone in the camps is aware that this is happening, and nearly everyone has been supportive,” he added.
Still, the outpourings of solidarity were not without controversy. “Mistrust was hard to overcome. Amongst refugees, there were a few people who didn’t like what we Twitter users were doing,” Shabbir explained. “They thought Myanmar civilians were pretending to reconcile in order to get support from the international community, and that they would betray Rohingya after using them. My friends and I worked tirelessly to convince our fellow camp residents that our outreach efforts could bring long-term benefits, and subsequently, we think we have earned most people’s trust.”
According to Shabbir, “It seems that refugees here in the camps have authentically forgiven and are feeling happy to finally forge good relationships with Myanmar people of all ethnicities.” He expressed that no one could have imagined that the coup would bring about this positive development, which has shown that some solutions can and must be forged by “ordinary” people rather than by politicians and figureheads in Myanmar and the international community.
Signs of Political Progress
The emerging reconciliation was soon visible offline as well, with anti-coup protestors in Yangon showing up to rallies with handwritten signs apologizing to Rohingya. The willingness of new civilian leaders to recognize the Rohingya suggested to Shabbir and his peers that social activism could trickle up to influence discourse at the national level. Supportive comments made by members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and its international envoy Dr. Sasa, who has promised to pursue justice for Rohingya, were a source of encouragement to continue expressing solidarity.
However, during the initial months after the coup, there was ambiguity as to whether the positive expressions from Dr. Sasa and others would amount to a departure from the stance of the previous NLD government. The National Unity Government (NUG) was formed by the CRPH on April 16 and there were some initial doubts over whether it would condemn longstanding policies of Rohingya exclusion and persecution. But it has since taken several steps to distinguish itself from the recently ousted civilian administration. One positive sign came on May 20, when NUG Special Representative U Htin Linn Aung stated during a Wilson Center webinar that the NUG fully intends to support Rohingya repatriation. On May 30, the NUG published a press statement asserting that it would cooperate with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) process currently underway to determine whether Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya.
Then, on June 3, the NUG released a progressive policy position statement lauded by many observers and described as a “monumental shift” by the human rights group Fortify Rights. The NUG’s statement declared its intent to do away with Myanmar’s problematic and outdated 1982 citizenship law, and to ensure birthright citizenship to all people born in Myanmar as well as to the children of Myanmar citizens. This would effectively mean the acknowledgement of existing citizenship rights for the Rohingya.
The June 3 statement also clarified the NUG’s position in regard to the current International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation on crimes committed by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya. Previously, the NUG had only mentioned that it would consider accepting the ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate the Tatmadaw’s crimes since the coup, which would not cover earlier periods of violence against the Rohingya. According to the June 3 statement, however, the NUG intends to “initiate processes to grant the ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed in Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities” – a commitment that offers hope for full accountability.
Despite feeling hopeful about the recent developments, Shabbir and others in the camps have been careful to temper their optimism. The junta’s grasp on power in Myanmar remains fierce, if threatened, and the NUG has no certain pathway to gaining control. Shabbir sees the addition of a Rohingya representative to the NUG cabinet as a critical next step to bridge the gap between social reconciliation and the political action needed to forge lasting solutions, but so far, no Rohingya cabinet members have been named.
According to Shabbir, “This lack of inclusion has been disheartening for many people who fear it signals that the support from Dr. Sasa and others is disingenuous. But we camp residents remain hopeful that the NUG will involve the Rohingya soon.” Whether this will happen remains questionable. Though Dr. Sasa was appointed as the NUG’s International Cooperation Minister, politicians who have publicly expressed anti-Rohingya views were also given key positions in the NUG. “Fortunately, Rohingya Twitter users have seen various Myanmar people posting on social media to encourage the NUG to involve us,” Shabbir added. “We acknowledge that it may take time to build a good relationship with the NUG, and we are encouraged by the progress made thus far.” The need for recognition of Rohingya issues by the NUG has been noted internationally as well. During a congressional hearing on May 5, several U.S. officials said that support for the NUG should be contingent upon adoption of an explicit anti-genocide policy.
Life as a Waiting Game
Meanwhile, life for those in the camps continues as a waiting game. Eager to return home, many closely follow Myanmar politics, weighing whether each development might promote or hinder the prospect of safe repatriation. The coup is the most significant of these developments since the mass exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh four years ago. Many people arrived in Bangladesh expecting to return home “in days or weeks, not years” once the violence subsided, as one person put it. Now, they are confronted with the reality of having to endure camp conditions for years or even decades. Those initially confident in prompt repatriation now accept that the violence and instability resulting from the coup is likely to further delay the prospect of repatriation in the near term.
Camp residents nevertheless remain hopeful that international justice and accountability delivered through the ICJ and ICC will help expedite progress toward solutions, and the NUG’s statement of support for these international mechanisms is a positive step. However, the residents lack access to clear information about these legal mechanisms, their scope, and their limitations, leading to what many would argue are overly optimistic perceptions given the history of international justice moving at a glacial pace. Victims have long called for international action to resolve the refugee crisis and hold perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities accountable, but many have been disappointed by an international response perceived as slow and inadequate: “What is the reason why we need to suffer in the camps for over three years? Why isn’t the international community doing anything for us?” Anti-coup protestors in Myanmar are now similarly frustrated by what they view as a lack of prompt and effective international support.
But many forms of justice that Rohingya need in their daily lives – citizenship, repatriation, access to education, and other services – will not be delivered by foreign politicians or faraway courts in Europe. As the coup and resulting instability cement the reality of long-term displacement, camp residents’ need for access to education, livelihoods, civil justice, and basic rights demands more urgent attention. Parents fear that their children will become part of a lost generation of unschooled youth, and illicit economic activity proliferates as refugees face financial pressures but lack the right to formal employment. While international accountability is ultimately necessary for sustainable peace, displaced Rohingya families face more urgent needs every day, as do Rohingya still living in Myanmar.
Complex Hopes and Next Steps
There are a few outliers in the camps, people who have an open mind about the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power or who think that the coup could have a positive impact on repatriation. They wonder if, free of the democratic process laden with complexities and bureaucratic red tape, the Tatmadaw might opt to relieve international pressure by addressing the crisis. One person commented, “The NLD had no real power to give us our rights. Whenever they consulted about Rohingya issues in Parliament, some members would always object, so they couldn’t do anything. But if the military could be convinced by the international community to give rights to Rohingya, they wouldn’t need to consult in Parliament and they could do as they wish.”
But these optimistic views were mostly voiced immediately after the coup. Some people’s hopes were raised when Tatmadaw commanders met with groups of Rohingya elders in Rakhine State just days after seizing power. The commanders blamed Aung San Suu Kyi for the crisis and vowed to make progress where the NLD had failed. Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing stated the same in a televised address on February 8. However, no follow-up action was taken, and these early hopes have faded. Some commentators were struck by the Tatmadaw’s audacity in attempting to shift blame for military repression of Rohingya to the previous civilian government.
As the junta has made no public efforts to engage with the ICC and ICJ cases about the Rohingya crisis while continuing to enact violence throughout Myanmar, it has provided no reason for affected communities to believe that it would pursue just and sustainable solutions. And the voices of hope have diminished with time as the Tatmadaw’s indiscriminate cruelty has been on full display with the killings of civilians in the streets and renewed violence against other ethnic minorities in the border regions.
Over the past four years, contending with the daily hardships of refugee life was difficult enough, but was viewed by many in the camps as a short-term necessity. People’s mental health is now impacted as they orient to the bleak prospect of remaining displaced for the foreseeable future due to the coup. In this context, the NUG’s positions in support of Rohingya citizenship and international justice are particularly welcome signs that progress is possible and that they will someday return home. As Rohingya have continuously stated, the right to Myanmar citizenship is the most fundamental guarantor of their future protection. Without citizenship, it is hard to envision a pathway toward just, safe, and sustainable repatriation.
Ultimately, the end of military rule is necessary as a precursor to forging peace and political solutions. In the meantime, the NUG should not lose sight of the need for Rohingya inclusion, their daily challenges in Myanmar and in the camps, and their right to justice. A meaningful next step would be for the NUG to add a Rohingya representative to its cabinet. As others have noted, the NUG should also reconsider the inclusion in the cabinet of officials who hold anti-Rohingya views. Taking these steps would earn the NUG greater international legitimacy, and, more importantly, would strengthen its ability to work toward an inclusive and just society.