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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 37 September 3, 2022

The 2021 Military Coup in Myanmar and the Rohingya Outlook: Interview with Aung Kyaw Moe | Nazia Khan

Saturday 3 September 2022


Myanmar, is a country of 54 million people and acts as a link between South and Southeast Asia. At the time of independence from Britain in 1948 a democratic government was in place. In 1962 a military coup brought rule of a military junta that lasted for decades. The military-junta rule faced opposition from pro-democracy activists which included Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The 8888 Uprising and 2007 Saffron Revolution forced the military junta to adopt the 2008 Constitution through a referendum. Eventually, the military junta allowed an election in 2010 and also released Aung San Suu Kyi who had been kept under house arrest intermittently. The democratisation process also intensified the issue of the Rohingya ethnic community in the Rakhine State. The Rohingyas were not included in 135 ethnic groups recognized by the 1982 Citizenship Law and thus denied citizenship. Rohingya issue took a central place with the rise of extremist monks, Ashin Wirathu, and Bamar Buddhist extremist groups like the 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha. Amidst this, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD party won an overwhelming majority in the 2015 election in Myanmar. Being in a position of power, Suu Kyi failed to acknowledge the plight of Rohingya who fled the country as a result of military violence and ethnic cleansing in 2017 in the northern Rakhine State. She not only refused to recognize the term Rohingya but defended the Myanmar military junta in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the case of Rohingya Genocide filed by the Republic of the Gambia. After winning the second election with a majority in 2020, the military junta carried out a coup in February 2021 against the Aung Sann Suu Kyi-led NLD government. Currently, Aung San Suu Kyi is jailed on the charges of election fraud and corruption. The citizens protested against the coup by the military, to which it retaliated with brute force. The deposed elected government responded by forming a Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw which created a government in exile known as National Unity Government (NUG). NUG also has an armed wing People’s Defense Forces to fight the military forces. Further, an all-inclusive platform known as, National Unity Consultative Council has been formed which includes the government in exile, civil society, activists and ethnic political parties of Myanmar to fight for restoring democracy in Myanmar.

Nazia Khan, Ph.D. Scholar in the Centre for South Asian Studies, JNU in conversation with Aung Kyaw Moe, who is an Advisor at the Ministry of Human Rights (National Unity Government) and a Rohingya activist. He is also executive director of the Centre for Social Integrity which aims to build a non-discriminatory and inclusive society in Myanmar. He talks about the Myanmar coup and provides a standpoint of the Rohingya community in the current scenario.

Q 1: Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Defense Services carried out a coup in February 2021 against the democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy (NLD). How did the Rohingya community residing in Myanmar and those who are refugees across the world situate themselves in the changed scenario? 

A: It was not a successful coup. It was a coup attempt. The junta ship couldn’t control the country to the level they calculated initially to rule over the country and the people. The people are not ready to be ruled by them. Of course, the Rohingya community before that had faced genocide under Min Aung Hlaing, who was commander-in-chief and the situation was dark for Rohingya, compared to others. He was systematically in the position to carry out a crime against humanity and genocide of Rohingya. On the other hand, the Spring revolution brought some unification across the communities within the country. Including larger acceptance of Rohingya.

Although the country is facing a horrific situation as a result of an attempted coup, this has created an opportunity for Rohingya to be included in the political process of Myanmar which was not the case in the last decade. Overall, the country is headed in a dark direction and many people are losing lives while using every means to resist this coup attempt. Rohingya people are also participating in the available space they have, in fighting the junta and bringing the country back to the process of democracy together with other ethnic people. There is a total of 6,00,000 lakh Rohingya living in Myanmar and over a million living in Bangladesh and 3-4 million worldwide. Those within the country are fewer in number as compared to outside, so it is not necessary that you have to be in Myanmar to be part of this process. One can be anywhere else and still be part of the revolution, and that is what is seen in the current situation.

Q 2: The people of Myanmar responded with a Civil Disobedience Movement against the February 2021 coup. The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) formed National Unity Government (NUG) in response to it. It has already been recognized by European Parliament. Do you see it as an effective force to fight against the military-junta coup and as a representative of the people? And is it getting enough support from the international community as well?

A: The NUG government has overwhelming support and legitimacy at the domestic level from the people of Myanmar. It is a mandated government. There are few countries and Inter-governmental organizations (INGOs) which has engaged with the government in exile. NUG is far ahead of the junta in the diplomatic landscape and is engaging with the international community. However, it is not allowed to control all the diplomatic missions which were previously established by the Myanmar government. This calls for support from the international community and the coup should be looked at from the perspective of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. China and India’s support to the military-junta to thrive and carry out the dictatorship in Myanmar and kill its people is condemnable. On the other hand, the democratic forces are supporting NUG. It echoes that totalitarianism is ahead of democracy. It means NUG is not getting sufficient and concrete support from the international community to the level it is required to end the dictatorship in Myanmar.

Q 3: The NUG statement on Rohingya in June last year was a clear shift from its position in the past. It not only used the term Rohingya, emphasized the atrocity they have undergone, but also promised to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law. However, it falls short to promise the Rohingya citizenship and keeping the matter open to discussion. What future do you see for the Rohingya community in the current scenario in NUG? 

A: It is a historic moment for Myanmar in various ways, Rohingya issue used to be national agenda in terms of discrimination, distraction, and carrying out atrocity against them. We are in identity politics, and it is important to claim our rights and responsibility as a citizen of the nation. If the term Rohingya is recognized, it should be recognized equally along with other ethnic groups which comes with equal rights and responsibilities. There are still gaps, even though recognition is the first step towards resolution.

For democracy, NUG needs to act upon the very principle that it is preaching to the international community and its people. This means the inclusion of all communities irrespective of their religious and ethnic identities, who were previously excluded from the nation-building and political process in Myanmar. We have seen steps of issuing of policy position on Rohingya by NUG which is good and deserve recognition from the international community. However, the Rohingya community living within the country is of politically recognizable size and it should have full rights and representation in different political institutions such as NUCC and NUG. It needs to come from a genuine political will across different ministries of NUG. There are different ministries in NUG and few ministries are genuinely making efforts to represent Rohingya, such as ministries of Human Rights and Women, Children, and Youth. There is space for improvement, in bringing the Rohingya agenda above others or at least in parallel to a national priority. There are gaps but there is progress as well.

Q 4: The military junta has declared the NUG and the People’s Defense Force (Defense Force of NUG) as terrorist groups. The execution of pro-democracy activists like Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw and Ko Jimmy among others came as a shock to the international community. This was the first execution after three decades, but the fact that it came hours after the International Court of Justice rejected the objections raised by the junta against the genocide case by the State of Gambia raised many concerns. NUG has carried out a statement on May 30, 2021, that it is ready to co-operate with ICJ on the issue. Is the military junta considering NUG as a threat to its survival?

A: NUG is the biggest threat to ending the dictatorship in the Myanmar junta. The current political landscape in Myanmar is unprecedented. The military-junta failed to calculate such a massive reaction and concrete way forward from the people in fighting against them. Military- junta is aware that they were not politically calculative in carrying out a coup and their only interest is to weaken and generate fear among the people. By carrying out such execution, they think they can control the people. If they continue to carry out such policies, people will react more rather than siding with the military junta.

Q 5: Looking at India’s stance towards the Rohingya issue and the refusal of post-coup refugee influx from Myanmar, it has been pro-Tatmadaw (Myanmar-military). The Ministry of Home Affairs in India on 17 August 2022, clarified the tweet by Union Minister for Housing on providing Rohingya with EWS flats in Delhi by saying that Rohingya are illegal foreigners and talk with the concerned authorities about their deportation. Till then they will keep in the detention centers? Your reflections on India’s policy towards Myanmar?

A: Being the largest democracy in the world it is shameful the way India has been treating Rohingya refugees. The deportations and not having a concrete policy to uphold humanity are concerning. It is not a political issue for India to provide shelter to those who survive the genocide. In my conversations with Rohingya community leaders in India, their life is in a horrific situation. They are being harassed and abused and some are detained which is unacceptable. They are being treated this way due to the absence of a national-level policy for refugees. India needs to see the Rohingya issue from humanity standpoint rather than a religious one. India currently is at peak of the promotion of a nationalist agenda under the current leadership. The Rohingya issue should not be seen as an issue between Muslims and other ethnic communities. This issue concerns humanity. India needs to uphold international obligations even though it is not a signatory of the refugee convention. As a member state of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, India should stand by it. Myanmar has been unfortunate when it comes to good neighbors. India, China, and Thailand are key players in stability and upholding democracy and development in Myanmar. And it should be in their national interest to restore democracy. However, the stand taken by India, China, and Thailand will not be forgotten by the people of Myanmar in their struggle. It has not only been neutral but has been supportive and engaged with the junta while people lost their lives and livelihood. It is deplorable for India to say they are the largest democracy and not support democracy in Myanmar.

Q 6: How do you see the future of Myanmar under the current military-junta rule? And what way forward will you suggest?

A: Myanmar is undergoing a historical moment. It has been under a dictatorship in a variety of forms and shapes. The sense of unity, belonging, courage and innovation that Myanmar people come up with in fighting the dictatorship needs to be recognized and supported by the international community. The democratic force needs to be supported based on principle and value-based approach to end these dictators. These dictators only understand the language they are trained in. That’s why NUG has different forces in fighting against them. The international community must recognize we are speaking in the language that the junta understands. There is no room for reconciliation or dialogue. The political infrastructures need to be repealed and there is no room for reform. The military junta is carrying out a bloodshed attempt and they are loading their bullets to kill the civilians. It will be a shame for democratic forces to come to dialogue with these forces. The way forward is that we want a federal democracy, where everyone is included, everyone’s rights respected, everyone is safe and the country progresses. It will only be possible if democratic forces have territorial control through the support of the international community. The interim period will be very difficult for people, especially due to economic hardship, the impact of Covid-19, and the plight of Internally Displaced People (IDPs). Myanmar citizens need to be resilient enough and should have support from the international community to continue the fight and end the dictatorship.

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