With much hope and greater expectations, Myanmar resumed its democratic journey in 2011, ending more than half a century of military rule. However, within just a decade, the military has once again overthrown a democratically-elected government and seized power marking the end of democratic normalcy. Myanmar’s military coup happened on February 1, 2021, the same day when the parliament was scheduled to reconvene following the general election that took place in November last year. In the election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party scored a landslide victory in both the houses of the Parliament. The coup took place just as Suu Kyi’s party, the League for National Democracy, was prepping up to form a new government. Finally, since Myanmar is engaged in trilateral talks with Bangladesh and China on the Rohingya repatriation issue, the military coup raises the question on what does the future hold for Rohingya repatriation process now?
The military has justified the coup on the rationale that the November election was rigged. Although the election commission has categorically rejected such allegations. Further, several observers suspect that this was not the sole reason behind the military coup. They argue that Chief of Army Staff General Min Aung Hlaing’s high ambitions, lack of assurances on his appointment to the coveted post of the President of the country following his retirement in July, and Suu Kyi’s objections to his nominees for the three cabinet posts controlled by the army (constitutionally) could have precipitated the coup. Many observers firmly believe that an unwritten alliance between Suu Kyi and the military helped her stay in power. Suu Kyi’s strong support to the Myanmar army on the Rohingya issue at the International Court of Justice in Hague convincingly reinforces this notion. However, the relationship has somewhat deteriorated in recent times on various issues. On the Rohingya front, the supposedly amicable relationship between the two poles of power did nothing to solve the raging issue.
The history of the armed and separatist movement in ethnically divided Myanmar goes back several decades. For the past five years, Aung San Suu Kyi has not taken any initiative towards resolving the issue. Now that the army has come to power, it can very much expected that it would also do nothing about the issue. On the repatriation front, some experts hope that since the Myanmar army has had to face criticism from the western countries for the coup, it would be more willing to back some Rohingyas. According to The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Bangladesh is currently host to a staggering 7,42,000 Rohingyas, the world’s most persecuted community.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once universally acclaimed for defending democracy and human rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize, is now a much-berated personality in the wider democratic world. It was during her reign that ethnic strife stirred up. Not only did she side with the military, but she also continued to perpetrate ethnic oppression in the interests of the majority Bamars, as well as the extremist Buddhists. She never paid attention to the issue of human rights violations in Myanmar. Therefore, when New York Times reporter Hannah Beech wrote, ‘her strongest critics accuse her, as a member of the Bamar ethnic majority, of racism and an unwillingness to fight for the human right of all people in Myanmar,’ she was to the point. For Suu Kyi, ethnic conflicts and human rights violations in Myanmar were not alarming; rather,her entire focus was onstaying in power. Perhaps for this reason, when the Myanmar army was condemned for the persecution of Rohingyas across the world she repeatedly supported the army. On the other hand, extremist Buddhists (the reader may recall Vitharu as Burmese bin Laden) support Suu Kyi and the initiative to evict the Rohingya people from Rakhine.
Further, in her report, Hannah Beech quotes (Seng Nu Pan), a politician from Kachin Province, “now that she has tasted power, don’t think she wants to share it with anyone.” (How a Human Right Angel Lost her Halo, Nov 14, 2020). When there was a cry for ethnic unity, she had taken no initiative to end the ethnic conflict. Her role was sharply criticized in the democratic world. Many of his titles were revoked. There were even calls for the withdrawal of her Nobel Peace Prize. Despite all her efforts, she could not save her back. Ultimately, she was ousted by the same army that she strongly defended on The Hague.
So, where is the situation going now? A state of emergency has been declared in Myanmar for a year. First Vice President Myint Swe, who is also a former lieutenant general, has been appointed as the acting president. He became the first vice president representing the military. Furthermore, the army chief General Min Aung Hlaing has been given the responsibility of running the government. This herald a long-term military rule in Myanmar, which would be difficult for the Myanmar people to get rid of. General Min Aung Hlaing is all set to become the country’s next president. He could form a party, or he could lead the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. This party did not do very well in the November (2020) elections. The party won seven of the 224 seats in the House of Nationalities. On the other hand, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) got 138. There were 56 seats nominated for the army. In the House of Representatives, the party had 26 of the 440 seats (NLD had 258, and the army nominated parties got 110).
As a result, the party had complaints about the election results. Now General Min Aung Hlaing can use this party to stay in power. He will retire in July (2021), and then he will take over as full-time president. Moreover, if the situation becomes normal, he can hold elections in 2022. A military-backed constitution has already blocked Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidency. Now, General Min Aung Hlaing can take the initiative to ban the NLD or the National League for Democracy because only Aung San Suu Kyi has the popular support to challenge him. She called on the workers to take the streets to protest before being arrested by the army. However, a large-scale mass discontent against the army seems highly unlikely.
Under such circumstances, there will not be any significant progress on the issue of Rohingya repatriation. Although Myanmar had earlier agreed to begin Rohingya repatriation in the middle of this year, the process may now halt for some time. Extremist Buddhist groups notorious for their anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya position are now backing the army. They would never want to see the Rohingyas return to Myanmar and would seek to prolong the repatriation process.
Soon after the coup, the newly elected US president Joe Biden strongly condemned the Burmese military’s arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and threatened to reimpose sanctions on the country. He also called for a concerted international response to push them into relinquishing power. India, Myanmar’s next-door neighbor, expressed their concern over the coup but refrained from commenting anything against the military directly. China is perhaps the only country that showed no concern over military takeover in the country. China has blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup in Myanmar. Beijing has long played a role in protecting the country from international scrutiny. It sees the country as economically important and is one of Myanmar’s closest allies.
Therefore, even if the United States imposes sanction on Myanmar but China continues to support the military then it would be difficult for Myanmar to restore democracy in the country. Bangladesh also has to seek China’s help for successful Rohingya Repatriation.