For Rohingya Refugees, Myanmar Military’s Crackdown on Protesters is All Too Familiar

Jesmin Papri, Abdur Rahman and Shailaja Neelakantan
Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar, and Washington
For Rohingya Refugees, Myanmar Military’s Crackdown on Protesters is All Too Familiar Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in a temporary settlement set up in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in a “no-man's land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018.

Seeing the violence against civilians in Myanmar in the wake of that country’s coup, Rohingya refugees sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh say their own experience has been validated now that the general Burmese population is experiencing the brutality of its military.

Refugee leaders who spoke to BenarNews expressed solidarity with Myanmar protesters, as well as bitterness that they did not receive the same in 2017, when a brutal military crackdown on their community caused 740,000 of the stateless Muslim minority to flee to Bangladesh.

“At that time, if everyone had joined the movement to stop the atrocities against the Rohingya, then they would not have had to join this protest movement,” Muhib Ullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, told BenarNews from the Kutupalong refugee camp this week.

“People who are protesting in Myanmar today, where were they during the genocide against Rohingya in 2017?”

Violence and persecution by the Myanmar military is something the Rohingya know all too well, said Mostafa Kamal, a Rohingya refugee leader at the Leda refugee camp.

“They are opposing the army today, but they supported them in the past,” he said.

“This is the consequence of silence. We have long been saying that the Myanmar army never wanted anything good for the people,” Kamal added.

In August 2017, in response to an attack by Rohingya insurgents on police and army posts in Rakhine state, the Myanmar military launched an offensive against the Rohingya described by the United Nations later as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

An estimated, 24,800 Rohingya were murdered and around 18,500 Rohingya women and adolescents were raped in the August 2017 military crackdown, according to research published by the Ontario International Development Agency in August 2018.

Now, three-and-a-half years later, the Myanmar military and police have turned their guns on citizens from the ethnic majority protesting against the coup that toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi last month.

At least 54 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since the military takeover on Feb. 1, according to the United Nations human rights office. Most of the dead were protesters killed by police and army personnel, the U.N. and rights groups say.

Rohingya protest Myanmar coup

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the leader in Myanmar during the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, has been criticized not just by the Rohingya but by the international community for her perceived inaction during the military offensive of 2017.

Their feelings about her notwithstanding, Rohingya refugees have held demonstrations in Bangladesh against the military coup in their homeland.  

Md. Jamal Photography, a Twitter account that describes itself as “Rohingya photography,” has been regularly posting pictures of refugees in Bangladesh protesting the coup in the country next-door.

Kamal, Ullah and other Rohingya say they are on the side of the protesters taking to the streets of Myanmar’s major cities, and are firmly against the Feb. 1 military coup led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

“Though the Rakhine people had not protested against the oppression on us, we, the Rohingya, are strongly protesting against the torture on them by the army,” Kamal told BenarNews, referring to the dominant ethnic group in Rakhine state.

“We want all the people of Myanmar to be able to live with their basic rights. And there is no alternative but a movement for realizing the rights,” Mohammad Yusuf, a Rohingya leader from the Inchiprang camp in Teknaf, told BenarNews.

Inside Myanmar, too, Rohingya and other ethnic minorities have shown solidarity with protesters from the country’s ethnic majority against the military coup, according to a report by Nikkei Asia.

“I have never seen Myanmar people in such strong unity,” Nikkei Asia quoted a 25-year-old Burmese public relations executive who belongs to the ethnic Karen minority as saying.

“This is not just in Yangon, but also across the whole of Myanmar. Together we will fight for our justice and true democracy.”

Myanmar, a country of 54 million people the size of France, recognizes 135 official ethnic groups, with majority Burmese accounting for about 68 percent of the population. The Rohingya ethnicity is not recognized, and its members are often disparaged as illegal "Bengali" immigrants from Bangladesh.

A common cause

Some Myanmar citizens seem to be realizing how terrible their silence on the atrocities against the Rohingya was.

Among protesters in Myanmar have been groups of young people carrying signs expressing remorse about the killings of defenseless Rohingya.

“I really regret … Rohingya crisis that Myanmar military did,” say signs held up by young Burmese in a photograph that has been widely shared on Twitter.

One Burman mobile technology developer wrote a series of tweets last month apologizing for calling a Rohingya running for elections last November a “Bengali,” Vice World News reported.

“I know it’s too late to say these words, but I have to admit something that has been haunting me. Back in October, I developed @mvoterapp with a couple of my friends, and the app got called out by @JusticeMyanmar for being racist towards Rohingya,” he had tweeted.

“Recent events have opened up my knowledge more than ever. I’m starting to understand the fact that my silence during that time made me complicit in the genocide of Rohingya. I understand its past due time but I’m truly sorry that I was silent at that time.”

Many Rohingya have welcomed these developments.

Activist Ali Jinnah Hussain said on Twitter that he was heartened by the remorse shown by young Burmese.

“As a Rohingya I’m so happy to see that this … Gen Z can understand the reality and are ready to accept the truth. I’m thankful to them and hope more people will join them,” Hussain tweeted recently.

These developments present an opportunity for the Rohingya and anti-coup protesters to forge common cause, wrote former Australian lawmaker Ronan Lee, the author of “Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: Identity, History and Hate Speech.”

“The Rohingya know better than most the value of a democracy and the perils of military rule,” Lee wrote in an essay published on the website of ABC News (Australia).

“Considering the international support they can harness, the Rohingya should now be a key ally of democracy protesters in the campaign to oust the military,” he said. “The most effective way for the Rohingya and others in Myanmar to fight the military is by cooperating.”


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