‘People Will Face More Violence’: Rohingya Refugees React to Myanmar Coup

They feared for their relatives still in Myanmar and worried about the prospect of ever returning home.
February 2, 2021, 6:07am
Myanmar, Burma, Rohingya, coup
Rohingya refugee children play football in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on Oct. 11, 2020. Photo: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP

Rohingya refugee Mozuna Khatu was initially happy when she heard that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been detained. 

“Praise god, maybe we can go home now,” she told VICE World News from a sprawling camp in Bangladesh, where more than one million Rohingya live after being driven from their homes in Myanmar in waves of state-backed violence.

But when she understood the military seized power, her opinion quickly changed. “We lost everything because of the military. If they are in power, we cannot go back to our country.”

Her reaction hints at the fraught legacy of Suu Kyi, whose arrest by armed forces on Monday heralded the return of junta rule in Myanmar, which is now under control of powerful commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the military over their violent expulsion of the Rohingya minority in 2017 earned her little sympathy in the world’s biggest refugee camp, where restrictions on internet access meant the news was slow to trickle out through the dusty lanes of the densely packed settlements in southern Bangladesh.

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“We will never support Aung San Suu Kyi. But as a human I still feel sorry for her,” a man sitting in a tea shop said. 

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In this aerial picture taken on Dec. 4, 2020, the Kutupalong camp for Rohingya refugees is pictured in Ukhia. Photo: AFP

More than anything else, however, Rohingya fear the coup means their chances of returning home and being treated as citizens will dwindle even further under Min Aung Hlaing, who has been accused of overseeing a genocide against the Muslim minority. The senior general once described the Rohingya in Myanmar as “unfinished business.”

Minara, a community leader in the camps, spent Monday morning trying to get in touch with relatives in Myanmar after hearing the news. Just like everyone else, she is worried about the future: “What will happen to our children if we can’t go back?”

Her colleague Afrosa, who like Minara also goes by one name and is the founder of the Rohingya Women for Justice and Peace, said she feels sorry for everyone in Myanmar despite the lack of support from the public when they were driven from their homes. 

“The people in Myanmar didn’t feel sympathy for us when we were suffering. But I feel sympathy for them,” she said. “We have received training about peace and justice here in the camps. Min Aung Hlaing still doesn’t seem to have received any.”

Refugees expressed fears not only for their relatives back home but also for everyone else in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

“There will be more violence for everyone. No matter what religion they believe in, people will face more violence,” said another man who did not want to disclose his name for fears of not being allowed to return to Myanmar. 

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The Bangladesh Rohingya Student Union condemned the coup on their Facebook page, writing “Free Suu Kyi and Free Democracy.”

In a post addressed to his “Burmese brothers and sisters,” Mayyu Ali, a respected Rohingya poet and youth leader, called for unity in the struggle against the military.

“The people in Myanmar didn’t feel sympathy for us when we were suffering. But I feel sympathy for them.”

But in a show of the complex emotions coursing through the community, local leader Mohib Ullah said he is optimistic about the events as the military can act more decisively to help the Rohingya, despite years of trying to push them out of the country and strip them of their rights.

“We don’t like the coup. We support democracy. But both the government and the military in Myanmar are common enemies of the Rohingya,” he said. “Now the military can decide easily about restoring our citizenship. When Aung San Suu Kyi was the government, she had to talk with many people before making decisions.” 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters in a statement that they expect the efforts for repatriation of refugees to continue.

Most refugees, however, don’t seem to be too hopeful about their prospect of returning home safely.

“How will we be able to go back now?” asked Zafor Alom, an imam in the camps. “I am praying for Myanmar. My heart is still there.”

And Aung San Suu Kyi?

“I was born in Myanmar. I might have to pray for her too,” he said with a weary smile.