Rohingya refugees scuffle as they wait to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
Rohingya refugees scuffle as they wait to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 25, 2017. Image: Agencies

CHIANG MAI – After grabbing power in a February 1 coup that has been resisted by massive demonstrations and condemned by the US, EU and UN, Myanmar’s military regime would appear to have few cards to play to win acceptance.

But one the coup-makers amazingly think they can play is the plight of Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who were driven across the border during brutal military campaigns in 2016-17, and those who have remained behind in Myanmar.

Shortly after overthrowing Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government, the new military regime sent a letter to Bangladesh’s government through its ambassador in Myanmar to explain their reasons for the coup, namely unsubstantiated allegations of fraud at the November 2020 election Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) resoundingly won.

In the letter, the full contents of which has not been made public, the military regime also mentioned a possible solution for solving the Rohingya crisis. That prompted Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abdul Momen, quoted by the Dhaka Tribune on February 6, to say “these are good news. It’s a good beginning.”

Inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state, several local military commanders have visited Muslim-inhabited areas close to the Bangladesh border and a camp for internally displaced Rohingyas in the state capital Sittwe.

According to a February 5 United News Bangladesh (UNB) report, the commanders talked to Rohingya elders and donated 500,000 Myanmar kyats (US$350) and food for the mosque in Aung Mingalar Quarter where thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been languishing since communal riots between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012.

A Rohingya refugee man stands before Kutupalong camp in Ukhia near Cox's Bazar on August 13, 2018.Photo: AFP/Chandan Khanna
A Rohingya refugee man stands before Kutupalong camp in Ukhia near Cox’s Bazar on August 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Chandan Khanna

Military visits have also reportedly taken place in Maungdaw, a Rakhine state township that borders Bangladesh. The commanders have reportedly told the Rohingyas the same thing: Suu Kyi, not the military, is to blame for their massive exodus from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 2017.

It’s not clear yet if the Rohingyas are taking the claim seriously. According to all other accounts, what happened in 2017 was a military campaign over which Suu Kyi, or any other elected civilian leader, had no influence considering the military controlled the defense, border affairs and home ministries.

However, the UNB report stated that Rohingyas in the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar were “joyous at the news of the fall of Suu Kyi.” Similar reports have also appeared in other Bangladeshi media.

But the question remains: will these military overtures result in an easing of the restrictions on the movements of the Rohingyas in the IDP camp in Sittwe and some token repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh?

Bangladesh’s authorities have handed over a list of 840,000 Rohingyas to Myanmar for citizenship verification, but only 5% of those, or 42,000, have been verified by Myanmar and almost none has been able to return due to lingering security concerns.

Bangladesh, which fears radicalization among young, restless refugees and the activities of criminal gangs among them, have up until now moved 5,300 refugees from the overcrowded and congested camps near Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal where new, modern facilities have been built, indicating that they will be there for the foreseeable future.

Now, if Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Momen is to be believed, the Rohingyas in the camps “expressed happiness hearing the news from Rakhine.”

Part of the military’s ruse, Yangon-based analysts say, is that those opposing the military takeover and its policies could be branded “racists” or “Islamophobes” if they denounce the military for suggesting repatriation of a community who the vast majority of Myanmar citizens consider illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Aung Suu Kyi defends Myanmar against accusations of Rohingya genocide at the top UN court in The Hague, Netherlands, on December 11, 2019. Photo: International Court of Justice / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Moreover, how will the West react to such sentiments, if expressed, from the pro-democracy demonstrators who are opposing the military’s coup? And what role would China play in any such gambit?

Rohingya refugees may have cheered Suu Kyi’s ouster, but social media postings also show photos of Rohingyas expressing opposition to the coup by holding up three fingers, a symbol of democratic defiance first used in the region by anti-government demonstrators in Thailand and now being flashed across Myanmar.

As for China’s role, Bangladesh has pinned its hopes for help on Beijing to find a solution to the refugee crisis. According to Momem, speaking to Bangladesh journalists on February 3, “We have confidence in China. They have come forward to take initiative and some progress has been made.”

It was not clear what kind of progress he was referring to, but, so far, it has been limited to inconclusive talks between various actors. A virtual meeting set up by Beijing involving representatives of Myanmar, Bangladesh and China scheduled for February 4 was canceled because Myanmar’s coup-makers had cut the nation’s internet connections.

Beijing, which remains suspicious of any movement that could be described as Islamic, has through the United Wa State Army — a Myanmar-based ethnic armed organization that has close relations with China’s security services — warned other ethnic groups not to have any dealings with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya rebel group.

Attacks by that rag-tag rebel outfit against security outposts in Rakhine in 2016 and 2017 prompted the Myanmar military to launch a massive “clearing” operation in the area. The Chinese have since claimed ARSA had connections with what it called “Islamic militants” in its western province of Xinjiang.

The international community appears to be divided on the issue. It is highly unlikely that the new Joseph Biden administration in Washington, with its stated commitment to democracy promotion in Asia and worldwide, would change its view on the military takeover because of vague coup-maker commitments to finding a solution to the refugee crisis, the greatest humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War.

Washington is already considering re-imposing sanctions on Myanmar and even the 15-member UN Security Council released a statement on February 4 calling for the release of all detainees and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

But if Myanmar’s new military government manages to ride through the storm of massive protests and strikes to retain power in Naypyitaw, it is not inconceivable that Western powers and Japan, which is eager to keep Chinese influence in Myanmar at bay, may start to soften their stance and engage the coup regime.

History, of course, shows engaging Myanmar’s generals is unlikely to restore the relatively open but only semi-democratic order that prevailed under Suu Kyi before the coup. Nor are the million or so Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh likely ever to return to Myanmar, regardless of the regime’s teasing suggestions to the contrary.