What does the coup in Myanmar mean for the Rohingya?

The Myanmar army has used the cover of counterterrorism to call for military involvement and launched a genocide. This occurs all too often in our world.

In recent years one of the most heart wrenching images to cross our TV screens and laptops has been that of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing for their lives from their homes in Myanmar (aka Burma) to refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Estimates go as high as 860,356 individuals, with the vast majority having left their country since August 2017.

It was the fall of that year when the Myanmar army launched what can only be referred to as an ‘extermination’ program – i.e. genocide – against the Rohingya, who are Muslims in a predominantly Buddhist nation. The operation was justified by the top generals in the military as a necessary effort at ‘countering terrorism’ (more on that in a bit).

One of the cheerleaders of the army’s campaign was a Buddhist monk named U Wirathu. He has also been called the ‘Buddhist bin Laden‘, in reference to the now dead head honcho at Al Qaeda (AQ). I don’t think the epithet was a charitable one.

Wirathu is not your average Buddhist monk, if by average we look at the stereotypical orange-clad meek and mild religious figure. He is on the contrary a racist pig with a particular hatred for the Rohingyas. Here is a sampling of what he has had to say about these Muslims (NB these quotes are taken from my fifth book When Religions Kill):

  • (On allegations that Rohingya women were being raped) “Impossible. Their bodies are too disgusting.”
  • (On the use of economic sanctions against the Rohingya) “I don’t know how you tame a wild elephant in your country, but here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak, you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That’s how we tame the elephants here.”
  • “Once we [have] won this battle, we will move on to other Muslim targets.”
  • “I am defending my loved one, like you would defend your loved one. I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog that would bark at strangers coming to your house—it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.”

I think you get the point.

RELATED: Borealis on Buddhist extremism

Genocidal in Nature

For its part the Myanmar army has been engaged in the razing of entire villages, the rape of untold numbers of women and, in short, a policy of ‘Kill All You See’. The results are truly genocidal in nature.

This same army justifies its actions by claiming to be fighting terrorism. In truth, there is an Islamist terrorist outfit consisting of Rohingya called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA – Arakan is the part of Myanmar in the extreme northwest abutting Bangladesh where the Rohingya live: the official name of the region is now Rakhine). ARSA has been around since around 2013 and has definitely engaged in acts of terrorism (like this one).

Still, the acts of ARSA are not a reflection of Myanmar’s entire Rohingya Muslim population. Hence, the army’s excuse that terrorism is the raison d’etre for their actions in Rakhine State amounts to collective punishment and, let’s call it what it is, genocide.

Things are already bad for the Rohingya: they may now get worse.

On February 1 of this year the Myanmar military carried out a coup. It is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency. It is of no coincidence that the move came in the wake of elections in which the country’s National League for Democracy (NLD, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) won in a landslide. That a military chose to ignore the popular will is alas not an uncommon thing (see previous Perspective on Algeria where something very similar happened in late 1991).

As an aside, Suu Kyi was not the most helpful interlocutor when the genocide began. We all understand that she has to be careful what she says and how she says it but she was justifiably and roundly criticised for her initial silence over the army’s moves in Rakhine. It is one thing to remain mute: it is quite another to go to The Hague to defend those actions.

So what now for the Rohingya?

Not shockingly, many are more afraid than ever. With the military back in control (Myanmar’s recent history is far too replete with army ‘government’) most fear going back to their homes, convinced the actions of a few years back will repeat.

The military killed us, raped our sisters and mothers, torched our villages. How is it possible for us to stay safe under their control?

Khin Maung, head of the Rohingya Youth Association in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

And what will ARSA do? Will they step up attacks? If so, this will be used – again – by the Myanmar generals to say their tactics are necessary. Ergo, more suffering and more scorched-earth practices.

The bottom line in all of this is that a state used the cover of counterterrorism to call for military involvement.

This occurs all too often in our world. Yes, terrorism is real and yes it must be combatted on several levels all at once but not it cannot be thrown out cavalierly to hide what are in reality efforts at eradicating an entire people.

I hope I am wrong. I hope the Rohingya can return to their homes. Fingers crossed.

Read More on Myanmar

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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