Myanmar’s military coup prolongs misery for Rohingya in Rakhine

In early August, military officials assigned to Rakhine State by Myanmar’s generals summoned leaders from the mainly Muslim Rohingya community in Buthidaung township to a meeting on the banks of the Mayu River.

The officials came with a warning: Rohingya villagers should cut off any ties with the Arakan Army (AA), an armed rebel group fighting for self-determination for ethnic minorities in the country’s northwest.

“Currently we are participating all-together in the AA’s administration … Because the AA is acting with equality and law for all of us,” a Rohingya township administrator in Buthidaung told Al Jazeera, adding that the Rohingya have so far ignored the military’s request.

Amid concern that the political crisis triggered by the February 1 military coup could descend into civil war, and as a ceasefire in the restive northwestern state begins to falter, the country’s oppressed Rohingya minority is looking vulnerable once again.

In November last year, there were mass arrests of Rohingya trying to leave Rakhine, new draconian restrictions on their freedom of movement, and intimidation from military officials about the dangers of collaborating with the AA, which mainly represents ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

“Currently our township is stable, but we don’t know when fighting will start so we are always living together in fear,” said a 47-year-old Rohingya resident of Buthidaung, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest.

It has long been illegal for Rohingya to travel outside of the state, with those who breach the rules risking a two-year prison sentence. But the deteriorating situation means more are trying.

In late November, the Myanmar navy seized a boat near the state capital, Sittwe, that was travelling from Maungdaw to Malaysia, arresting the more than 200 Rohingya who were on board, including 33 children.

Earlier that month, 55 Rohingya were arrested after making it as far as Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.

The military leadership appears to be introducing harsher punishments, with local media reporting on December 15 that a court sentenced the Rohingya arrested near Sittwe to five years in prison for breaching the law, rather than two.

In 2017, the Myanmar military unleashed a brutal crackdown on Rohingya civilians, sending at least 700,000 fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh amid reports of killings, torture, rape and arson. Most remain there, trying to survive in the world’s largest refugee camp.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then the country’s de facto leader until the coup, ignored appeals from rights groups and the international community to condemn the violence, even defending the military against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

But when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government was overthrown in February, concern grew that the situation for the Rohingya could once again deteriorate.

‘We were really afraid’

The AA wants greater political autonomy for the northwestern state.

Relations between Rakhine and Rohingya communities have historically been strained, with frequent outbursts of inter-ethnic violence.

Some Rakhine civilians were implicated in attacks on Rohingya villages in the 2017 crackdowns, and the AA referred to a Rohingya armed group as “savage Bengali Muslim terrorists”, using a common pejorative to imply Rohingya are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.

The AA agreed to an uneasy ceasefire with the military in November 2020, after two years of brutal civil war that left nearly 90,000 displaced and hundreds of civilians dead.

In March last year, the military removed the AA from its ‘“terrorism”‘ list, but the AA has now committed to building an administration that includes the Rohingya, and reports of recent skirmishes have raised questions about how much longer the truce will hold.

Another administrator, in Kyauktaw township, said armed military authorities summoned administrators from six Rohingya villages in September.

He said the officials did not explicitly threaten them or outline any consequences if they worked with the AA, but the fact they were armed meant the experience was intimidating.

“And then, they said ‘don’t work with the AA to solve any problems.’ We were really afraid of them at the time because they have weapons. We couldn’t tell them much. And they said again and again not to work with AA,” he recalled.

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