U.N. and Western criticism of Myanmar’s military junta over last month’s coup has given hope to some ethnic Rohingya activists living in exile, who have long pushed other nations to help stop persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar.
“We have to become more diplomatic in this situation when the opportunity really presented itself for us to actually do some outreach and extend our compassion to our fellow citizens,” said Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya activist in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Born in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, Ullah and her family fled in 1995 to Thailand, where she remained a stateless refugee until her settlement in Canada in 2011. She told VOA that her community now has its “best chance to be able to make amends” through extending solidarity to the anti-junta demonstrations and pushing for a federal democratic system in Myanmar.
“It is a very rare opportunity for us to do this. And I think if we blow this, we might not get another one,” she added.
Members of the Rohingya, who blame the military for the 2017 deadly crackdown against them, have warned a more powerful military could further endanger minority groups in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
“This [Myanmar’s coup] does not create hope for a better future for Burma,” said Nasir Zakaria, the president of Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago. “It makes the Rohingya more vulnerable in Burma.”
In 2017, Myanmar’s army reportedly led a campaign of killings, rape and beatings against the Muslim minority that drove out over a half million of them to Bangladesh. The U.N. has called it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Despite living in poor conditions in Bangladesh, many Rohingya refugees refuse to return to Myanmar, saying stranded relatives in Rakhine State are living in constant fear.
Shortly after the coup, military ruler Min Aung Hlaing said he wanted to bring back the Rohingya from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The army has reportedly reached out to Rohingya leadership to reassure them and also donated money to build a mosque in Sittwe as a goodwill gesture.
However, Zakaria said, that has done little to build trust among the refugees.
“The IDP [internally displaced persons] camps with Rohingya living inside them have not received any form of aid or humanitarian assistance from Burma,” said Zakaria. “Why would they help refugees in Bangladesh when they don't help the Rohingya in Burma?”
Ro Nay San Lwin, the co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, shared similar skepticism of the military’s alleged attempts to turn a new page.
“The military chief said in 2018 that this crisis is unfinished business from World War II, so we are really worried,” Lwin told VOA via phone from Frankfurt, Germany.
Confined to villages
The remaining Rohingya stranded in Rakhine, Lwin said, are confined in their villages that have turned into “concentration camps” because of military curfews. He said the community had been unable to voice its support for anti-coup demonstrations because of fears of military violence.
“What we are worried about is that the military now is busy [with its] crackdown against protests across the country. When the situation is stable, it might launch another round of violence against the Rohingya and wipe out the remaining population,” Lwin said.
This week, the U.N. humanitarian agency said at least 149 protesters had been killed in the crackdown. On Wednesday, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said it had “grave concern” that the military was torturing political activists, students and youths.
Some experts say developments in Myanmar have created an atmosphere in which minority groups such as the Rohingya can find a common ground with the protesting Burmese.
Ronan Lee, the author of Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide and a scholar with the International State Crime Initiative, said more people in Myanmar were starting to draw a comparison between the military’s violence against the protesters and the Rohingya. He said many protesters have now begun to question the inconsistency of their silence when the military brutalized Rohingya civilians.
“Better this realization comes late than never at all, and some protesters in Yangon have even carried signs with slogans to indicate their regret over the Rohingya’s mistreatment,” Lee said. He added that the Rohingya leadership should work with Myanmar’s youth, who are increasingly rejecting racism in politics.
Rare opportunity seen
“Defeating Myanmar’s coup would provide an opportunity for the country to at last change its constitution in order to kick the military from politics permanently. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine Myanmar’s future," Lee said.
Some experts, however, warn that a broad involvement in the anti-military protests will further expose the Rohingya to Buddhist extremists in the military.
"It will be prudent to take a balanced approach under the current circumstances, because our community of the remaining 600,000 people in Rakhine State is highly vulnerable,” said Wakar Uddin, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
“The risk is too high and the price will be enormous if the military is antagonized by any small misstep by the people who they hate most,” he said, arguing for sustained international pressure to resolve the Rohingya issue, regardless of which group rules Myanmar.