Rohingya Myanmar’s coup has brought thousands on to the streets, but in 2017 they were empty.For almost three weeks there have been mass protests on the streets of Myanmar. On 1 February, the Tatmadaw, or military, moved against the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, claiming fraud in last November’s elections, which her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), comprehensively won.
Since then, civil servants and teachers, bus drivers and garment workers have taken to the streets. Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, was brought to a standstill by a “broken-down” rally, where drivers left their cars parked across the roads, with bonnets open. There are even stories of police having joined in.
The nationwide defiance of the military coup has been courageous and impressive, and echoes similar protests in Russia, Belarus and elsewhere. But, as welcome and important as these demonstrations are, they also lead to a difficult and uncomfortable question.
Where was all the marching and shouting and defiance over the past four years as the Tatmadaw organised a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people, razing their villages, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh?
The Rohingya, Muslims who live mostly in the north-west state of Rakhine, bordering Bangladesh, are the most persecuted of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups. Though Rohingya have lived in Rakhine for generations, they are treated, officially and unofficially, as foreigners. The authorities refer to them as “Bengalis”, and the 2014 census refused to include Rohingya as an ethnic category.The military junta that came to power in Myanmar in 1962 (or Burma as it was then) fomented hatred against the Rohingya as a means of cementing support. The latest and most vicious drive began in 2017. Under the pretext of a campaign against “terrorists”, the army implemented a programme of ethnic cleansing, which many deem as possessing “genocidal intent”, a clampdown as brutal as China’s suppression of the Uighurs.