Myanmar’s coup, the Rohingya and the EU


Global Europe

Picture of Bill Hayton
Bill Hayton

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House

The terrible fire in the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh on 22 March, which destroyed the homes of almost 50,000 people, was a reminder that the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – has created two very different crises for Southeast Asia.

One began on 1 February this year with the military coup against the government elected in November 2020 and the violent suppression of the subsequent protests. The other began over four years ago with the persecution and subsequent expulsion of 750,000 Rohingya Muslims in north-western Rakhine State.

The prospects for reversing either the coup or the expulsion look bleak.

The Tatmadaw has at least 300,000 soldiers under arms, it has been in near-continuous combat along the country’s frontiers since independence in 1948 and it is led by generals with a ferocious determination to build a unitary and ‘disciplined’ state free from external interference. It has a long history of resisting economic sanctions and of ignoring international criticism. In short, there are few reasons to believe that external pressure is likely to force the military to reinstate the 2020 election result or repatriate the Rohingya.

The Tatmadaw continue to crack down on the democracy protestors while the Rohingya remain in their refugee camps

On 27 March, the Tatmadaw held a huge parade to mark its annual ‘Armed Forces Day’ even as dozens of pro-democracy protestors were being shot dead on the streets of the former capital Yangon and other cities. Despite the demonstrations, representatives of all five of Myanmar’s neighbours – Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand – attended, as did generals from Vietnam, Pakistan, and Russia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continues to invite Myanmar to its ministerial meetings even as a few individual member states attempt to discuss an end to the political crisis with the generals. In private briefings, White House officials have made clear that the United States will not be boycotting meetings with ASEAN even with Myanmar in attendance. In short, the Tatmadaw leadership is not isolated and is not likely to be soon.

On 22 February, the European Council announced the imposition of sanctions on 11 people connected with the coup. The decision came nearly three years after the Council sanctioned 14 people for atrocities against the Rohingya population. Neither set of sanctions has had any effect. The Tatmadaw continue to crack down on the democracy protestors while the Rohingya remain in their refugee camps.

European sanctions do not generate leverage on the Tatmadaw and without leverage there will be no action.

A new repatriation plan was mediated by China in January and is supposed to begin later this year

Bangladesh wants the 864,000 registered refugees to leave its territory. Various plans to facilitate the return of small groups of Rohingya have been agreed since 2017. Even though they were approved by Myanmar’s previous civilian government, the process was always going to take place under the control of the Tatmadaw. Refugees are expected to return to guarded camps rather than their original villages, but very few have been willing to take part.

Inside Myanmar, there is minimal support for Rohingya repatriation. Border affairs are under the control of the same military authorities that expelled the refugees in the first place. In 2019, the head of the ousted civilian-led government, Aung San Suu Kyi, defended the military amid claims of genocide against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice and was generally applauded by her voters for doing so. Anti-Muslim prejudice is widespread among Myanmar’s population. Connecting efforts to overturn the coup with efforts to repatriate the Rohingya are unlikely to generate extra support for either aim.

A new repatriation plan was mediated by China in January and is supposed to begin later this year. Almost immediately after the agreement, the Myanmar authorities were calling for it to be delayed. However, a week after the coup, the head of the Tatmadaw, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, said the country would be willing to continue with the repatriation. The coup leaders appeared to be dangling the offer of more repatriations in exchange for the international community recognising the outcome of the coup. It is not a commitment that the Tatmadaw is likely to honour.

The Tatmadaw preferred to accept repatriation rather than fight another border insurgency

What then can the international community do to encourage and facilitate the return of the Rohingya? What leverage is likely to work?

Previous expulsions of Rohingya in 1978 and 1992 were successfully reversed, but mainly because the Bangladeshi authorities threatened to arm the refugees. The Tatmadaw preferred to accept repatriation rather than fight another border insurgency. It could also use the Muslims as a ‘vote bank’ to counteract the separatism of the Rakhine Buddhist population. This time, there is no discussion of arming the Rohingya and there is no sign of the Tatmadaw softening its hard line on repatriations either.

This writer has long believed the Tatmadaw will never accept the return of anything beyond a token number of Rohingya. The international community must reconcile itself to this reality, rather than hiding behind the naïve belief that sanctions will change the Tatmadaw’s attitude. There needs to be a frank discussion about the permanent resettlement of the refugee population either in Bangladesh or in other countries.

This will be denounced as the legitimisation of what the United Nations called at the time “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” but the alternative is the creation of a new ‘Palestinian problem’ in South Asia with hundreds of thousands of refugees unable to return home or earn a living, posing a continuing, and growing, threat to the stability of their host country, Bangladesh and the region.

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