‘Serious Threats’ Ahead: Human Rights Experts Voice Concern for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar Following Military Coup

Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured above in FRONTLINE's 2018 film "Myanmar's Killing Fields," was removed from office in a military coup on February 1. Experts worry human rights protections, especially of Rohingya Muslims, could suffer.

Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured above in FRONTLINE's 2018 film "Myanmar's Killing Fields," was removed from office in a military coup on February 1. Experts worry human rights protections, especially of Rohingya Muslims, could suffer.

February 2, 2021

In the wake of a February 1 military coup in Myanmar, experts are concerned the change in power will further endanger human rights protections, especially for Rohingya Muslims — an ethnic minority that faced atrocities potentially amounting to genocide under the previous, and freely elected, administration.

“The man who oversaw genocidal acts against the Rohingya, and war crimes and crimes against humanity against other ethnic minorities, is now the sole leader of the country: Min Aung Hlaing,” said Shayna Bauchner, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Since gaining independence from the British colonial rule in 1948, Myanmar’s government has shifted back and forth between military and civilian control. The most recent period of military rule ended in 2011, with the newly deposed leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, taking office in 2015 after winning the first free election in 25 years. With the coup, the military removed and detained Suu Kyi and other members of Myanmar’s civilian government; declared a year-long state of emergency; and transferred power to Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The military’s return to power poses a particular threat for Rohingya Muslims, whom the Buddhist nation of Myanmar — also known as Burma — has largely viewed as illegal immigrants since a 1982 law stripped them of citizenship. In the ensuing decades, the military has systemically dismantled their rights, enabling widespread violence that both the U.N. and the United States have called “ethnic cleansing.”

“The military didn’t fade into background with the start of the democratization process,” Bauchner said. “It held on to its levers of power … with provisions in place to allow for exactly this sort of takeover. Serious threats lay ahead for activists, journalists, ethnic minorities and others who have long been targets of the military’s oppressive campaigns.”

FRONTLINE covered the military’s treatment of the Rohingya in the 2018 documentary Myanmar’s Killing Fields, which drew upon hundreds of civilian-filmed cellphone videos of attacks and murders. More than 1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State for nearby Bangladesh since 2017, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. As of October 2020, Human Rights Watch estimated that around 130,000 ethnic minorities, mostly Rohingya, remain in Rakhine State, confined in camps the watchdog group called “open-air detention facilities.”

In the wake of the coup, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki released a statement, saying the U.S. is “alarmed by reports that the Burmese military has taken steps to undermine the country’s democratic transition, including the arrest of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials in Burma.” In the statement, Psaki said the U.S. “will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”

Human rights concerns extend to Myanmar’s general population. Since the coup, there have been wide internet disruptions across the country. Netblocks, an organization that tracks cybersecurity, found that internet usage across the country was at half of its usual capacity Monday morning.

“The cutting off of internet and mobile access is not a new thing,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Butler cited routine arrests of journalists throughout Suu Kyi’s administration — including the 2018 detainment and pardon 500 days later of two Reuters journalists — as well as strict rules about what the government considers disinformation,  limiting journalists’ ability to report freely. Under military rule, “We’re concerned that these things will grow worse and be intensified,” he told FRONTLINE.

Nonetheless, Suu Kyi remained popular in Myanmar, with her party, the National League for Democracy, winning at least 396 parliamentary seats out of 476 in the November 2020 election. But many outside the country regarded her legacy as “tarnished” due to her “tepid public response to the atrocity crimes committed against the Rohingya,” said Alex Hinton, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and the UNESCO chair on genocide prevention.

In 2018, Amnesty International stripped Suu Kyi of its 2009 Ambassador of Conscience Award, one of the organization’s highest honors, for “betraying the human rights values she once advocated for,” said Joanne Lin, national advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. “Suu Kyi and her office have shielded the security forces from accountability by dismissing, downplaying or denying allegations of human rights violations and by obstructing international investigations into abuses, and her administration has actively stirred up hostility against the Rohingya.”

Lin said the coup poses an ominous moment for Myanmar and that she anticipates a “severe worsening of military repression and impunity.”

Hinton, of UNESCO, agrees. In the days and weeks to come, citizens and the international community should be worried, especially for ethnic minorities, he said. “The military has historically demonized groups like the Rohingya to play to nationalist sentiments. So, the level of atrocity-crimes risk has risen, and events need to be carefully monitored.”

Correction: This story has been edited to reflect that the coup took place Monday, February 1, local time.

Watch Myanmar’s Killing Fields in its entirety below and stream hundreds more FRONTLINE documentaries online anytime.

Lila Hassan

Lila Hassan, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



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