Myanmar opposition cannot be allowed to exclude the Rohingya

Myanmar opposition cannot be allowed to exclude the Rohingya

This handout photo taken on May 10, 2021 shows protesters taking part in a demonstration against the Myanmar military coup in Dawei city. (AFP Photo / Dawei Watch)
This handout photo taken on May 10, 2021 shows protesters taking part in a demonstration against the Myanmar military coup in Dawei city. (AFP Photo / Dawei Watch)
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One of the most promising developments following the military coup in Myanmar was the formation of a pro-democracy front to resist the coup from among the ousted democratic parties, along with representatives of civil society groups and of previously marginalized ethnic groups. It therefore came as a tragic shock that the Rohingya, the ethnic group most oppressed in Myanmar in recent years, were excluded from this effort.
It was a very hopeful day when ordinary Burmese citizens took to social media back in March to apologize to the Rohingya for not believing the reports of how the Myanmar military had been brutalizing them for years, forcing the majority into exile across the border in Bangladesh. The military of the country, the Tatmadaw, has been targeting ethnic minority groups in the porous border regions of Myanmar since the country gained independence in 1948. But the Rohingya, visibly different in their appearance and Muslim by faith in the Buddhist majority country, always got the worst of it. Ultimately, that resulted in the genocide we witnessed in the last decade. Throughout that, the Buddhist Burmese majority in the heartland of the country had convinced themselves that the Tatmadaw had always acted in the best interest of themselves, “the people.”
When the Burmese of the heartlands came out on to the streets in numbers to protest the military coup of Feb. 1, the Tatmadaw deployed against them the same tactics and the same brutality they had honed against the minorities. And so the veil was lifted. The Tatmadaw was not there to protect the Burmese people. It was a violent, occupying force with its own designs, acting solely for its own interests. And if the Burmese would dissent, they would get it just as hard as the Rohingya, or any other “enemies of the people.”

Some of the key players in the NUG had also been complicit or indeed actively promoted the Tatmadaw’s purge of the Rohingya.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Many of us in the international community knew this all along. What we did not necessarily expect was that the Burmese would recognize this truth so quickly and readily, or indeed that they would have the capacity to organize an effective resistance once Aung San Suu Kyi and the top brass of the National League for Democracy had been arrested. But the initial protests were not snuffed out like we feared they would be. They have only grown since. And the protesters did indeed manage to get organized effectively, even coordinating with the imprisoned leaders of the ousted civilian government, as well as with the leaders of anti-Tatmadaw resistance in the minority-ethnic borderlands regions. The outcome of that coordination was the national unity government (NUG), announced last month.
That announcement really heralded a new dawn for Myanmar and for the hope of democracy in the country. The military coup achieved what many of us thought impossible: It united all the ordinary people of Myanmar in a shared political project to build a democracy for the country and to move away, once and for all, from the constant violence the Tatmadaw brought upon the land.
All people of Myanmar except the Rohingya, it appears. Unfortunately, some of the leadership of the NLD, who are now key players in the NUG, had also been complicit or indeed actively promoted the Tatmadaw’s purge of the Rohingya from their ancestral lands in Rakhine state. Critical players in the NLD’s electoral alliance had also been, from its historical beginnings, some of the most hard-line Buddhist nationalists in the country. These people are still adamant that the Rohingya do not belong to Myanmar, and that the ethnic cleansing of Rakhine state was overall a good thing.
However, we in the international community need not accept that democracy can allow for some people to be excluded and purged from the body politic of a country simply because they were born to some particular ethnic group. Already, some US lawmakers are pushing for the NUG to include representatives of the Rohingya in the same way that representatives of other ethnic groups are included.
If there is to be any hope for justice for the Rohingya — and indeed if there is to be any hope for a legitimate democracy in Myanmar — the international community must put its foot down on this issue: Your NUG is not democratic unless it represents all people of Myanmar, and it is not legitimate unless it excludes those who advocated and enabled genocide. Any recognition of the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar by the international community must be conditioned on this principle.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College.  Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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