Four Years After Massacres and Purge, Sympathy for the Rohingya Grows in Myanmar

Many now see the Myanmar military, which has killed over a thousand protesters and other civilians since the Feb. 1 coup, as a common enemy.
Four Years After Massacres and Purge, Sympathy for the Rohingya Grows in Myanmar Rohingya refugees walk along a path at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, Aug. 25, 2021.

Four years after the Myanmar military attacked ethnic Rohingya communities in the country’s western Rakhine state, burning villages, killing residents, and driving hundreds of thousands as refugees across the border with Bangladesh, sympathy has grown for the Muslim minority, sources in the country say.

The military’s 2017 scorched earth campaign launched in response to attacks by Muslim insurgents against police posts in Rakhine, has since been described by international rights groups and foreign governments as constituting acts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”

On Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the 2017 attacks, the suffering of the Rohingya is being recognized across Myanmar, where some of the same brutal tactics used against the Rohingya have been turned on ethnic majority Bamar civilians ad other ethnic groups who oppose the military junta that deposed the elected government on Feb. 1.

On Tuesday, Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), formed in opposition to military rule, expressed sympathy for the Rohingya displaced as refugees and vowed to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for its crimes not only against the Rohingya but against other people in Myanmar.

“The military has committed atrocities everywhere,” said Aung Myo Min, the NUG’s Minister for Human Rights, told RFA.

“During the past four years, they have committed mass killings and acts of sexual violence against the Rohingya people, and this has led to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilians fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.”

“On this four-year anniversary, we should not just mourn those losses. We should also provide justice and closure for the victims. And we should remember the lessons learned from the past so that this history will not repeat itself again in the future,” he said.

In June, the NUG unveiled plans to amend the country’s constitution to give citizenship to the Rohingya, who are not recognized as an official ethnic group in Myanmar and are often viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Recognizing the Rohingya as citizens represents a sharp break from the policies deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi pursued toward the beleaguered group during her 2016-21 tenure. She refused to even say the word “Rohingya” in public and staunchly defended the Myanmar military against crimes against humanity charges in 2019 at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

A common enemy

“It is encouraging to see that many people in Myanmar have begun to see the truth,” said UK-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin, recalling the many years of prejudice suffered in Myanmar by the Rohingya.

“We have all seen that the military’s brutalities are not limited to the Rohingya,” Tun Khin said. He cited the killing by Myanmar security forces of at least 1,016 anti-junta protesters and other civilians, in a running tally maintained by the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

“They are now committing atrocities in cities like Yangon and Mandalay. It is now very clear that the military regime is our common enemy, and that we all have to eliminate the military’s power in order to end its rule,” Tun Khin said.

“People in Myanmar have definitely grown in sympathy toward the Rohingya people,” said Thin Zar Shoon Lae Yi, a youth activist and civil society leader in Myanmar, adding that many in the country were previously unaware of the suffering experienced by the Muslim minority group.

“Also, people were not free to talk about the Rohingya issue, and the military and its supporters directed a lot of hate speech and propaganda against them. As civil society groups, we tried to counter these things by providing fact checking and holding interfaith discussions,” he said.

The attitude toward the Rohingya of the NUG has also contributed to the shift in public opinion, Thin Zar Shoon Lae Yi said.

“People always look for moral leadership when it comes to controversial issues,” he said. “I feel positive about the [change in] people’s attitudes toward the Rohingya. We will become better people ourselves by having sympathy toward them.”

'We want to go home'

Khin Maung, a Rohingya refugee at the Tharyin Khali refugee camp in Bangladesh, told RFA he wants to go back to his former home in Myanmar.

“It has now been four years since the military drove us out, and we are still mourning for the people who died in the attacks,” he said.

“And though we have lived for four years in the camps, we’re not happy here. We want to return to the country where we lived and grew up. We have no freedom or security in the camps, and we’re not receiving any education here. It’s also hard for us to make a living.”

Senator Jeff Merkley, a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined a bipartisan group of 19 senators on Wednesday calling on the administration of President Biden to issue a Rohingya genocide designation, calling the move long overdue.

“Failure to do so will only further embolden the perpetrators of ongoing abuses against the Burmese people,” Merkey said in a statement. “It will also undermine the administration’s principled recognition of genocide in other parts of the world if such determinations are not applied consistently,” he said.

Reported and translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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