Some might find it odd that Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, ousted Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup d’etat. After all, how often does a Nobel Peace Prize laureate defend a genocidal military campaign against the Rohingya before the International Criminal Court at The Hague?
For the Tatmadaw, the drubbing that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy inflicted on its Union Solidarity and Development Party in the November 2020 elections was not just a humiliation, but an existential threat. The NLD won 86 percent of all contested seats in the two chambers of parliament. The USDP won only 5 percent.
Even with the military’s constitutionally allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats, Suu Kyi was getting perilously close to having the three-quarters of total seats needed to seek a referendum to amend the constitution and strip it of provisions that enshrine the military’s political role.
In launching the coup, the military announced that it would hold onto power for a year before relinquishing it to a civilian government. That seems unlikely. We can probably expect a situation similar to what happened in Thailand after the 2014 coup, as Gen. Min Aung Hlaing angles for the presidency in a distinctly minority government.
The coup also will have negative repercussions for the stateless Rohingya.
Democracy in Myanmar wasn’t great for the Rohingya. The freeing of the press opened the way for hate speech, and there were few votes in defending the widely reviled ethnic minority. Recall that the November election was not held in parts of Rakhine state due to the two insurgencies there.
So what does the coup d’etat mean for the Rohingya?
More than 1 million Rohingya refugees live in squalid camps in Bangladesh. This is an intractable situation. As unlikely as it was that Suu Kyi’s civilian government would have allowed the return of the Rohingya en masse, any return now is all but impossible to foresee in the short term.
Repatriation talks have been drawn out and the few agreements in principle have not been implemented. Two rounds of repatriation talks – in November 2018 and August 2019 – broke down. A mere 460 refugees were returned between 2018 and late 2020. Myanmar seemed willing to accept the return of a mere 550 Hindu Rohingya, but Bangladesh fears that’s where the repatriation stops if they agree.
The Myanmar government refused to grant the Rohingya returnees citizenship, residency rights, or other legal protections. Satellite photos have shown that the military has been constructing camps in the Rohingya villages they razed.
At the same time, it is naive to think that Suu Kyi’s NLD government would have accelerated the return of the Rohingya.
The hyper nationalistic National League for Democracy is the dominant party representing the interests of ethnic Burmans, who comprise 68 percent of the populace.
Most Burmans ascribed to the Tatmadaw’s line that the Rohingya have no legal claim to citizenship and that they are illegal Bengali immigrants. Suu Kyi had shown little interest in countering that narrative. She publicly whitewashed ethnic cleansing and evidence of widespread rape of Rohingya women.
Her government did express some willingness to take back more refugees in November 2020. The NLD was coy about their intentions to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law, having prioritized other constitutional amendments.
A third repatriation meeting was held in January 2021, but little came from it. Bangladesh accused Myanmar of failing to expedite the security vetting, while Myanmar rejected Bangladesh’s call for a village-by-village return.
With the coup, it is unclear when and if those talks will resume. Bangladesh seems resigned for a protracted stalemate and continues their phased resettlement of 100,000 refugees to the low-lying island of Bhashan Char.
While the Tatmadaw may continue to allow handfuls of refugees to return, they will be cantoned in camps. Myanmar’s government has been issuing those who returned National Verification Cards, which define them as “stateless,” but it’s unclear whether it authorizes them a path to citizenship or offers other legal protections.
For the Rohingya living in the camps, their sense of hopelessness will only grow. That is good news for militants such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which benefits from their people’s despair. Membership in armed groups affords a degree of protection and access to scarce resources.
If the junta is even more intransigent in negotiating the return of the refugees, then Bangladesh has few palatable alternatives. There is limited bilateral trade. The junta is already diplomatically isolated and resilient to outside pressure.
Which leaves one tool that Dhaka has thus far seemed reluctant to use: the covert arming – directly or indirectly – of groups such as ARSA and the better armed and equipped Arakan Army. This entails risks for Bangladesh, most importantly the Tatmadaw’s total cessation of repatriation talks.
It seems unlikely that the Tatmadaw will resume repatriation talks in order to salvage their international reputation and get some sanctions lifted. The senior military leadership has already factored in the diplomatic costs of their coup.
They are a regime that is absolutely impervious to international criticism of their human rights record. The senior leaders are already under sanctions, and the country is awash in dragon money. They have calculated that countries such as China will help them evade sanctions, and that ASEAN will not push them.
The military is likely to turn to some of the more rabid monks, such as Wirathu, and the virulently anti-Muslim Ma Ba Tha group to legitimize their power grab. Much of the Buddhist clergy is likely to side with the public as anti-military resistance mounts.
But hard line clergy may see this as an opportunity. They could leverage their support for the regime to prevent any more repatriation of the Rohingya as well as foment crackdowns against other Muslim and religious minorities.