As hopes for a democratic Myanmar have come to a chilling halt, the country is now ruled by the military leader responsible for what some are calling a years-long genocide. On Monday Myanmar’s democratically-elected State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was forcibly ousted by the military, officially known as the Tatmadaw.
The military’s bold decision to stage a coup suggests limitations on Western ability to strengthen democracies and deter human rights abuses globally. As nations like Myanmar increasingly rely on China for their financial and strategic interests, the onus is now on the United States and other Western governments to show they not only still have bite in the region but care enough about the fate of persecuted groups to back up their words with action.
The leader of the Tatmadaw coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, is a household name in the international human rights world, particularly for his role in carrying out what we consider a genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority. While Hlaing has overseen the persecution of numerous ethnic and religious minority groups, including Christians, he has reportedly characterized the Rohingya as the country’s “final problem.”
The Rohingya, who have been described by the UN as “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world,” have increasingly faced eradication since 2017. Under Hlaing’s direction, upwards of 10,000 Rohingya have been massacred. An additional 800,000 have been forced to flee to refugee camps, primarily in Bangladesh. Conditions in these camps are grim, with inadequate shelter, insufficient food and limited access to basic services like healthcare and education. With the camps at capacity, Bangladesh has started shipping thousands of Rohingya refugees to remote islands where they will effectively be left to fend for themselves.
Still, roughly 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine Province where they have been repeatedly subjected to targeted killings, attacks, rape and torture.
While some human rights experts fear that Hlaing’s power grab will expose the Rohingya to even greater heights of persecution, others believe that the coup will have little impact.
On one hand, the now-ousted Aung San Suu Kyi has been no friend of the Rohingya or other religious minorities. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient has faced harsh criticism since 2016 for denying genocidal intent behind the military’s actions and vigorously defending the military before the International Court of Justice.
Moreover, prior to the coup, Hlaing already exercised an iron grip over the Rohingya population, under the pretext of security matters. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense of the military, therefore, has been largely irrelevant to the Rohingya’s plight. According to a source engaged in the criminal investigation of alleged Tatmadaw crimes perpetrated in Rakhine state, “there is no indication that the civilian authority [Aung San Suu Kyi] acted as a brake on the Tatmadaw planning and operations — nor, for what it is worth, an accelerant.”
Others have argued that, for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and elsewhere, the coup likely cuts off any possibilities of repatriation to Myanmar in the near future. Prior to the coup, the regime had worked out an agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate “some Rohingya back to Myanmar in the second quarter” of 2021. But it was never clear whether these repatriation efforts actually stood a chance under Aung San Suu Kyi.
The international community has begun calling for increased sanctions. Several world leaders, including President Biden, are actively considering this option. And they should. Possible action by the United States could include an expansion of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions targeting military officials, as well as other sanctions that would target the finances of the military and any companies implicated in the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
But it remains to be seen whether such threats will intimidate the Tatmadaw. In moving forward with the coup, the military seems to have made the calculation that Western support is not needed to achieve its goals. With its most significant business interests linked to China, it would appear that the military views China as a reliable ally — and certainly one that will cast no judgment over the Rohingya crisis, given its own active genocide of the Uyghurs.
With no signs of China condemning the coup, the United States and other nations must closely watch the enabling impact of the Communist Party’s alliance with the Tatmadaw and take appropriate action.
It is also time for the U.S., U.K. and others to declare that genocide took place against the Rohingya in order to completely delegitimize the Tatmadaw’s rule. U.S. Congress should authorize money for criminal investigations and evidence collection based on genocide and other crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in Myanmar, on the model of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018. Such measures will be the first step in the eventual pursuit of justice.
As the international community settles on the best way forward, it must also work overtime to make the protection of Myanmar’s most vulnerable a first priority. And the powers that continue to stand for freedom and democracy must ensure that they themselves become Hlaing’s final problem.
Kelsey Zorzi is president of the U.N.’s NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and director of advocacy for global religious freedom for ADF International. Her writings have appeared in several outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and RealClear. You can reach her at @KelseyZorzi.