The Myanmar military’s coup on Monday sent shockwaves across the country, bringing back memories of half a century of crushing isolation under direct military rule.
Perhaps nowhere was the fear more intense than among the country’s persecuted ethnic minorities.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, a man UN experts have said should be investigated for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity along with other senior officers, is now the country’s leader and has declared a state of emergency for one year.
“Now, those in power are holding weapons,” said Moe Moe Htay*, 28, an ethnic Arakanese mother who fled fighting between the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group, in 2019. “I worry we will return to the past military era.”
Under the military regime, which ruled from 1962 to 2011, the Tatmadaw ruthlessly went after civilians in areas where ethnic armed organisations were fighting rebellions. Systematic rights abuses including extrajudicial killing, sexual violence, torture and forced recruitment led millions to flee the country.
In 2011, Myanmar began a transition towards semi-civilian rule and in 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won the elections by a landslide, allowing her to become the country’s de facto leader.
Under a military-drafted 2008 constitution, her civilian government was left sharing power with the Tatmadaw, but across the world, many had faith the global icon would stand firmly on the side of human rights.
Instead, Myanmar experienced what UN experts have called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In 2017 the Tatmadaw launched “clearance operations” against the mostly Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine State which left at least 6,700 dead and 740,000 seeking refuge in Bangladesh.
Just a month later, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the media that the Tatmadaw’s operations against the Rohingya were “unfinished business.”
A UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission report released in August 2018 recommended Myanmar’s top military generals, including Min Aung Hlaing, be investigated and prosecuted for genocide over the Rohingya crackdown and for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States.
“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and buring entire villages,” the report found.
“They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them. The Tatmadaw’s contempt for human life, integrity and freedom and for international law generally, should be a cause of concern for the entire population.”
As of January 2021, the UN considered more than 300,000 civilians to be internally displaced in the country, including 129,000 Rohingya forcibly confined to camps in Rakhine State since 2012 and more than 100,000 ethnic Kachin and Shan who fled conflict in Myanmar’s north beginning in 2011.
A local civil society group estimates that around 180,000 remain displaced by conflict between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army in Rakhine State, many uncounted by UN agencies, while since mid-December 2020, fighting between the Tatmadaw and Karen National Union led to at least 4,000 ethnic Karen people to flee their villages.
They remain stranded in the jungle and in urgent need of food and supplies, according to Zoya Phan of the Burma Campaign UK.
“Ethnic people have always been suffering grave human rights violations,” she told Al Jazeera. “Now with the coup, it will be even harder for ethnic voices to be heard.”
Aung San Suu Kyi and her government did little to stop the Tatmadaw or hold it accountable and at times even stood by its side, including in late 2019, when she defended the armed forces against charges of genocide at The Hague.
Her government also backed the Tatmadaw’s counterinsurgency against the Arakan Army which began in late 2018. In addition to blocking aid to conflict-affected areas, authorities ordered the world’s longest internet shutdown over parts of Rakhine State beginning in June 2019, leaving more than a million people without the ability to access or share information as the Tatmadaw committed widespread abuses against civilians.
Yet as bad as things were for ethnic minorities under the civilian government, many fear rule under the Tatmadaw could be worse.
“Before the coup, we were staying under the influence of the military in Rakhine State and I was really afraid when I saw Tatmadaw soldiers,” said Khaing Linn,* an Arakanese IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camp leader. “Originally, we ran here because we were afraid of the Tatmadaw. Now, they have full power. How will they react to us?”
Risks to aid
In addition to the prospect of escalating violence, IDPs’ basic needs are also in peril. Less than a week before the coup, the UN and humanitarian partners had released their annual Humanitarian Response Plan, which called for $276m during the next year to support more than one million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Yet since the coup, several international aid groups have suspended operations while governments, including the United States, are reviewing assistance to Myanmar.
A United Nations spokesperson in Myanmar told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity that the UN “will continue to seek all possible ways to ensure that our humanitarian and COVID-19 related efforts continue to reach almost one million people” as outlined under the Humanitarian Response Plan. They said it was too early to comment further on the potential effect of the coup on the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Even under the civilian government, aid was tightly restricted: according to UNOCHA, more than one-third of camps in Rakhine and Chin State were off-limits to all but a few aid groups, while areas of Kachin State under the control of ethnic armed groups were also blocked.
Local civil society organisations, largely funded by international donors, have played a key role in accessing hard-to-reach populations, but the secretary of a Rakhine State-based civil society organisation, whose name has been withheld for his protection, said he fears that organisations such as his may now be extinguished, face difficulty reaching vulnerable populations or see their international donor funding dry up.
“I am concerned that if international assistance stops due to the military coup, it will have a big impact on displaced people,” he said.
“I am also concerned about the role of civil society, which has been working under the democratic culture. Now civil society organisations will only work according to [the Tatmadaw’s] will. It depends on where they allow us to work … we face an uncertain situation.”
Moe Moe Htay, the 28-year-old Arakanese IDP, says the already meagre food aid she was receiving stopped abruptly with the coup.
“We are facing a worsening situation. Normally, some international NGOs support us with food, health and essential items … they haven’t come since the coup,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen next.”
When it came to power in early 2016, the National League for Democracy pledged to make peace with ethnic armed organisations its “first priority”, and over its five-year term, held four union-level peace talks aimed at bringing ethnic armed organisations into a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Faltering peace process
Although 18 ethnic armed organisations attended the first conference in 2016, the process faltered and several of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed organisations boycotted the latest round of talks in August 2020.
The situation was further complicated by the Tatmadaw itself, which days after its proxy party suffered a crushing defeat to the NLD in November’s election – a result it continues to challenge – announced its own peace negotiation committee running in parallel to the government-led peace process.
The Burma Campaign UK’s Phan is calling on international donors to halt their funding to Myanmar’s peace process, and instead demand the Tatmadaw immediately end its attacks in ethnic areas, allow humanitarian aid to displaced civilians and withdraw its troops from ethnic territory.
“The situation in ethnic areas never got proper international attention,” she told Al Jazeera. “Peace can never be achieved under a military dictatorship. Displaced people in conflict-affected areas will continue to suffer under a military dictatorship and the civilian government, but the road to genuine peace is even further now.”
She urged “strong international action” to pressure the Tatmadaw, including by sanctioning military companies and building support for a global arms embargo. “Lack of action from the international community has allowed the military to act with impunity. This must be stopped,” she said.
For Hpung Ding*, a 23-year-old man in northern Kachin State on the China border, nearly 10 years of displacement has been enough.
“I have no idea about politics, but I worry that our situation as IDPs will be worse than ever,” he said. In addition to concern that humanitarian aid will not reach his camp, which houses more than 8,000 people, he is also concerned that fighting could resume.
“How many more years do we have to stay in an IDP camp? How many years do we have to flee our villages?”
*Pseudonyms were used for Moe Moe Htay, Khaing Linn and Hpung Ding for security reasons.