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The Military Coup In Myanmar: What Happened and Why

Burmese fisherman in yellow paddling boat over smooth waters


Myanmar, modern-day Burma, has suffered a long history of violence and religious upheaval which came to a head on February 1st, 2021 as the military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, launched a coup against the representative government. Since the coup, communication with the South East Asian country has been limited, and the welfare of leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet is unknown. While this event is a grievous transgression against democratic principles and bodes ill for the nation as a whole, it represents a tragedy both preventable and foreseen. 

To better understand the complex mechanisms at work in Myanmar, it’s critical to have some knowledge of its past. However, before we get too involved in territories and titles, here are a few key terms. 

  • Rakhine State - a Muslim majority region of Myanmar located in the southwest region but sharing a northern border with Bangladesh

  • Rohingya - the Muslim majority group located in the Rakhine state who have been disenfranchised by their nation and driven from their homes by premeditated military action characterized by blatant violations of international law

  • Tatmadaw - the armed forces of Myanmar which function with exceptional independence and extremist action. It has historically exerted almost unlimited power at will and without consequence historically (military affairs are outside of democratically elected State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s limited powers)

  • The Sangha Council - a body of high-status monks under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture charged with regulating monks, and therefore Buddhist beliefs, nationwide

  • MaBaTha (the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion)- a Buddhist nationalist organization holding significant influence at the grassroots level, providing social services but also support for the military’s actions. MaBaTha has since been banned but ineffectively and without enforcement

  • ARSA (al-Yaqin) - a rebel militant group, recently surfaced, which arose in response to grievances exerted against the Rohingya

The turmoil seen now began as many modern international crises did—colonialism. Annexed into the sprawling British Empire in 1824-26, Myanmar joined neighboring India as a locus of foreign control on the continent. Rooted in the fluid borders between British India, Bengal, and Myanmar during this colonized period, religious and social tensions became ingrained into Burmese society but most strongly in the Rakhine state. In a snapshot, eighty-eight percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist while only four percent are Muslim with the remainder made up of Christian, Hindu, and other minorities. The central issues in Myanmar stem from nationalist prejudice and violent action against the Muslim or Rohingya populace and the fundamental disregard for Buddhist nationalists’ flawed narrative. 

During the colonial era, officials were brought from India to govern the more recently annexed Myanmar. Understandably, these officials became despised, seen by Burmese as enforcers and representatives of colonial power. Over time, these officials blended with Burmese, passing on their religion and elements of their language which marked them as outsiders from that point on despite their technical citizen status. This disparity would only become more significant—and deadly—in the lead up to World War II. 

Although Japan is better known for taking territory across the Pacific towards the United States, the country had other, more abstract goals on its home continent. The Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere was an imperialist movement oriented toward creating a self-sufficient continental bloc entirely separated from Western powers. To achieve this goal, Japan set out across East Asia removing Western colonial powers from critical footholds and inserting their Japanese authority. Colonized Burmese supported this effort, but officials serving under the British banner were enlisted to fight the invasion. The fighting turned largely inward as Pro-British Muslims and Pro-Japanese Buddhist nationalists took sides and massacred each other. Divisions cultural and geographic deepened as majorities polarized to the north and south of the Rakhine state. 

With the British Empire weakened by the war and pressured by the US, Britain granted Myanmar its independence as a sovereign nation in 1948. From independence, a military dictatorship controlled that country, worsening after the first military coup d’état in 1962. The latter half of the 20th century saw the gradual but systemic erosion of the Rohingya’s rights, including freedom of movement, choice of marriage, reproductive rights, political representation, and eventually citizenship itself. Rohingya are seen not as an indigenous minority but as illegal immigrants. They are referred to as Bengali by the Buddhist majority, who perpetuated this idea of dangerous illegals who take jobs, put unnecessary strain on a fragile economy, forcibly convert good Buddhist women, and establish communities too dangerous to walk through. 

Widespread intercommunal violence between Buddhist nationalists and Muslims erupted in 2012, then again in 2014 at which point the insurgent group ARSA emerged, taking the place of the defunct Rohingya Solidarity Organization. ARSA (or al-Yaqin) repeatedly attacked Border Control Police posts each of which incited the retaliatory, indiscriminate military responses in 2014, 2016, and 2017, resulting in the refugee crisis which continues to this day as thousands were killed and over 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and surrounding territories. The Rohingya, caught between two nations denying them citizenship or sanctuary (Bangladesh and Myanmar), remain legally nationless, unrecognized, and without international protection. 

After the attacks of BGP, ARSA, and by extension the Rohingya, are also considered terrorists with motives of Islamization in Myanmar. Despite this clearly articulated position from Myanmar's figures of authority, the government and military deny any allegations of targeting civilians, human rights violations, or use of unnecessary force. According to them, the international community, especially the West, human rights groups, and the UN are biased in favor of the Rohingya and not paying sufficient mind to the fragile state of transitioning Myanmar or to their concerns about national identity and sovereignty.

ARSA is officially deemed a jihadist group by the Burmese government, but, “information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.” Its stated goal is the protection of Rohingya and regaining their rights and citizenship. Though not the only religious minority in Myanmar, Muslims—particularly the Rohingya of Northern Rakhine—are viewed as dangerous illegal immigrants. Due to the kickback from ARSA’s actions, their relationship with the civilian Rohingya populace is complicated. 

Further complicating the situation is Aung San Suu Kyi. The Guardian wrote of her story in 2018, “There are falls from grace, and then there is Aung San Suu Kyi.” She was elected to the post of State Councilor, the government leader, in 2015. Her coming to power was seen worldwide as a turning point for Myanmar’s democratic, humanitarian, and social change for the better. Three years later:

Amnesty International became the latest organization to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of a human rights award, citing its “profound disappointment” in her. Just days later, the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar after a brutal military-led campaign of ethnic cleansing in August last year collectively refused to take part in a repatriation plan, due to Myanmar’s failure to ensure they had freedom, rights, and safety. Many believe the Myanmar government, which Aung San Suu Kyi leads, has no intention of taking back the Rohingya at all.

Suu Kyi has been stripped of her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and many other humanitarian recognitions in light of her refusal to acknowledge and tacit approval of the genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the Rohingya, support of media censorship with transgressions punishable by judicial action, disregard for international human rights legislation, and ineffective leadership. Figures of influence around the world expressed their disappointment and shock at the about-face Suu Kyi demonstrated upon reaching a position of power. Despite her ill-favor in the international community and in Myanmar itself, her disappearance at the hands of the military represents an unprecedented attack on a democratically elected public figure in the country as well as eradicates any chance of internal support for the Rohingya.  

Leaked documents indicate the possibility of premeditated intentions from the Tatmadaw and government to systematically eradicate the Muslim presence in Rakhine. This policy, if it exists in an official capacity, has been overwhelmingly successful and so far unhindered domestically or by the international community. A history of violence and contempt, tensions rooted in differing belief systems and family dynamics, proximity to the border, and the nationalist narrative freely perpetuated in a censored media atmosphere, are all factors which contribute to the conflict. Concerning Myanmar’s perspective, as a nation coming into its own, the heavy legacy of colonialism, the loss of resources to powerful foreign entities and allies such as China, and criticism from the international community, forces the government into a difficult position: should they capitulate to international—specifically Western—demands or stand their ground in promoting Buddhism and nationalism?

The most recent international outrage proceeds from Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing usurping the NLD as Myanmar’s leadership. Gen. Hlaing has long been a key perpetrator in the Rohingya genocide and an instigator of conflict between the military mechanism and the civil government since progress had been made toward democratic rule. His coup has received sanctions internationally, though no real action has been taken as China blocked an official UN Security Council statement and neighboring countries cite the insurrection to be an “internal matter.” While protests abound, restrictions in the form of law enforcement patrols, curfews, and limits to gatherings have been imposed, and none of these protests are on behalf of the refugees. 

On Friday, February 26th, at the UN General Assembly, Myanmar’s UN Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun urged the international community to use “any means necessary to take action and restore the democracy.” Speaking as a representative of Suu Kyi’s arrested government, he continued, “We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people and to restore the democracy." He has been removed from office upon his return according to government representatives denouncing Moe Tun in an announcement on Saturday, stating Moe Tun had, “betrayed the country and spoken for an unofficial organization which doesn't represent the country and had abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador.”

The current situation is tragic in many ways, even without the Rohingya to consider. Their circumstances compound the issue. Both events, each ongoing and symptomatic of much deeper, more insidious systemic conflicts, reveal the devastation wrought when perpetrators of human rights violations are not held accountable by the international community. While the subject of international intervention and dealing with the aftershocks of decolonization is a circuitous and fraught debate with no clear answers, there is one thing amidst all of this which should never be up for debate and that is global citizenship. By failing to officially declare military action against the Rohingya genocide, the international community has failed Myanmar, and now more than ever it is critical that our passivity is dismissed.

To learn more about the plight of the Rohingya, I invite you to watch the documentary “Myanmar’s Killing Fields” compiled by journalists and aid organizations on the ground in the conflict region. Be aware, the subject matter is not for young audiences and can be quite graphic. 


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