Among the Rohingya, there is trepidation that Myanmar’s military rulers would be worse than the ousted civilian-led government, Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, told The Washington Post.
“This military is very brutal, and Rohingya worry that the military may commit more violence against Rohingya,” Khin said. “We worry more may flee.”
Until Sunday, the past decade was one of a rocky transition to democracy in Myanmar. The military junta, installed in 1962, began ceding power and in 2016 formed an uneasy alliance with Suu Kyi, whom it had held under house arrest for 15 years.
But alongside these political changes came a violent military-led campaign against the Rohingya in 2017, which United Nations investigators concluded in 2018 had “genocidal intent.” The military rejected the findings, claiming instead that it has faced an insurgency among the Rohingya, an ethnic minority.
Kaamil Ahmed, a journalist previously based in Bangladesh who is writing a history of Rohingya refugees, said the United States and others in the international community initially sought to tread softly around majority-Buddhist Myanmar’s treatment of the Muslim Rohingya to protect what they hoped would be the country’s democratic transition.
That calculus, he said, could change in the wake of the coup.
“If that facade [of a democratic transition] has been destroyed, then there’s a question about whether the international community, and especially the new Biden administration, is going to be more forthright,” Ahmed said.
“The Rohingya are begging for a more serious international intervention, one that actually acknowledges what is happening,” he continued. “It hasn’t come, it seems, because they have seemed so invested in a democratic transition in Myanmar. And now the question is: Is that going to change?”
In recent years, Suu Kyi — who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for democracy in Myanmar — began to lose her global standing as she became a public defender of the military’s campaigns.
In 2019, Suu Kyi appeared before the International Court of Justice to answer questions about the 2017 razing of Rohingya communities, during which she refused to even say the word “Rohingya” and defended the government against accusations of genocide. She has also appeared to support the military’s claim that members of the long-persecuted minority are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
But rather than gloating at Suu Kyi’s fall, Ahmed said, many Rohingya are feeling further disappointment that conditions in Myanmar are not improving.
That sentiment is clashing with messaging from Bangladesh, which has been ramping up pressure on Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar.
More than 1 million Rohingya live in overcrowded refugee camps in the town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. They are forbidden from opening schools, and economic conditions, as well as mental and physical health, continue to worsen in the camps amid the coronavirus pandemic. The massive influx of people in 2017 was the largest yet in the waves of Rohingya who have crossed into Bangladesh since 1978 to escape spikes in persecution at home. Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has periodically forced some Rohingya to return to Myanmar, though others have kept coming.
Bangladesh has long warned that it can’t handle the refugees on its own. In December, it began implementing a strategy first floated in 2015: relocating Rohingya to the remote Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal, despite complaints from human rights groups that the island is ill-suited to host people and that relocations are being conducted without informed consent.
On Saturday, the government sent its fourth group of Rohingya — numbering about 1,460 — to the island, where it has built infrastructure to accommodate about 100,000 people.
None of this bodes well for the Rohingya, Ahmed said.
“In terms of the Rohingya, there’s been no real international action,” he said. “There’s been no pressure to make sure Myanmar creates safer conditions.”