Junta Brutality Gives Myanmar's Majority a Taste of Ethnic Minorities' Plight
2021-04-23 -- A cabinet minister from Myanmar's parallel government has publicly apologized to all Rohingya Muslims in a pre-taped video for ignoring the suffering of the persecuted minority group during the past five years of civilian-led government that was overthrown on Feb. 1 in a military coup.
Susana Hla Hla Soe, minister for women, youth, and children's affairs under the week-old National Unity Government (NUG) acknowledged failings by the civilian government under national leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi with ignoring human rights in ethnic minority areas, including the Rohingya Muslims.
"I myself personally apologize for that," she said Thursday, adding that while she had been a member of parliament for five years she did not "raise a voice for our brothers and sisters from the ethnic areas, including Rohingya brothers and sisters."
"I'm really sorry for that," Hla Hla Soe said during a press conference organized by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and the Altsean-Burma (Alternative Asean Network on Burma) NGO advocacy group.
Hla Hla Soe also urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional political, economic, and security grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations, and other international players to recognize the parallel civilian government over Myanmar's ruling junta.
ASEAN leaders are meeting on Saturday in Jakarta to discuss the post-coup situation in Myanmar and will likely raise the possibility of appointing a special envoy to mediate the crisis, which has claimed more than 730 lives â€” mostly civilian protesters gunned down by battle-hardened soldiers.
Hla Hla Soe's words echoed those of Dr. Sasa, who was appointed to serve as minister of international cooperation and government spokesman when the NUG was former on April 16.
"In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to work on bringing all ethnic nationalities into our National Unity Government so that it represents the great diversity and strength of this great nation of Myanmar," he said in a statement issued that day.
"We will deliver justice for our Rohingya brothers, sisters, and for all," said Dr. Sasa, who also serves as the special envoy of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group lawmakers ousted in the coup, to the United Nations.
The Rohingya have suffered state-sanctioned persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for decades, with officials during the previous civilian-led government refusing to use the word "Rohingya" and some referring to members of the group as "Bengalis."
A Myanmar military-led crackdown on the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship because they are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, left thousands dead in August 2017 and drove 745,000 others out of Rakhine state. They have lived in sprawling displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh's Cox Bazar district for nearly four years.
Aung San Suu Kyi's government denied that the military had committed any wrongdoing and she defended its actions during a hearing at the International Court of Justice in December 2019, despite a U.N. investigation finding the previous year that the crackdown was carried out with genocidal intent.
Students issue apology
The comments by the two parallel government officials came as security forces continue brutal crackdowns on anti-junta protests nationwide in the wake of the coup, giving many majority Bamars, two-thirds of the population, a taste of the same violence and rights violations the Rohingya and others have suffered.
The multiethnic nation of 54 million people in a territory slightly bigger than France has been riven with ethnic wars for the seven decades since it won independence from colonial ruler Britain in 1948. Some of the ethnic armies have joined hands with the anti-coup movement and given protesters safe haven.
Ethnic Rakhine people in Myanmar's western-most state have also borne the brunt of military forces in the northern part of Rakhine state for more than two years amid clashes with the rebel Arakan Army (AA), fighting for greater determination for the Rakhine people.
Officials and ordinary citizens alike have indicated that their views of the Rohingya changed after the coup, and some have apologized for doubting the horrific violence the Muslims experienced during the military's "clearance operations" in 2017 and the targeting of ethnic Rakhines during the army's counteroffensive against the AA in 2019 and 2020.
Hundreds of ethnic Rakhines were killed, and more than 200,000 were displaced by the fighting and by attacks on their villages.
Student activists in Yangon's Thanlyin township issued a public apology to the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhines in four languages on March 27.
"We are standing by the Rakhine people, Rohingya, Muslims, against any injustice [towards] them starting from today," said the letter by the Thanlyin Technological University Students' Union.
"We sincerely apologize for our ignorance and silence in the past," it said.
Dr. Phio Thiha, a well-known medical doctor turned writer with 550,000 Facebook followers, wrote a social media post in February apologizing to the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhines for not sympathizing their struggle and believing the military's propaganda against them.
"I am ashamed now," he wrote. "Those people were suffering from helplessness, hopelessness, bullies, and violence for many years just like we are experiencing right now. They are not as strong as we are. They did not have phones like us to record the abuses. Like us, they were not allowed to communicate with the world."
The same day, another writer, Moe Shinn IMT, who has 1.6 million followers on Facebook, wrote a similar mea culpa to the Rohingya and Rakhines.
"I do not expect forgiveness, but I apologize," he wrote in a social media post. "I apologize for not speaking out on ethnic issues and Rohingya issues in the past. I do not know what the future holds, so I apologize for the moment for that I was ignorant about those issues."
'We had been in the dark'
Such attitudes are a volte-face from the outright distain that most Myanmar citizens used to have for the Rohingya.
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said when the military attacked the Rohingya, most people in other parts of the country were skeptical about their accounts of the brutality, recorded by rights groups.
"When there was this genocide against the Rohingya, many people in the country thought it could not be true," he said. "People had believed the lies of the military."
Tun Khin, who was in Bangladesh as Rohingya escaped Myanmar said that every day he saw thousands of people with gunshot wounds, missing limbs, and serious burns crossing the border.
"Now people in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay are facing the same atrocities [at the hands] of the military like the Rohingya did in 2017," he said. "We also feel sorry for them."
A Yangon resident said it was only after witnessing atrocities in large cities following the military coup that people there realized they had misunderstood the Rohingya crisis.
"These Rohingya were said to have set fire to their own homes and cried bitterly when U.N. officials came to see them," she said. "That was what we learned from the government. We were skeptical about reports of persecution of the Rohingya and other ethnic nationalities by the military."
"Following the Feb. 1 coup, we saw the brutality and violence in our streets which we thought could not happen, and only then did we realize that we had been in the dark when other ethnic people were suffering at the hands of the military," she said.
Social media posts by Myanmar netizens about the Rohingya usually littered with hate speech now contain words of compassion.
'Very bitter experiences'
As for the ethnic Rakhines, Nyo Aye, chairwoman of the Rakhine Women's Network, said it was not yet known if any of those abducted or tortured by the military in recent years were still alive.
"We have very bitter experiences from this suffering," she said, recalling a viral video of male villagers detained by Myanmar forces being beaten and kicked by military men dressed in plainclothes as they traveled on a navy boat.
As many as 314 civilians were killed and 719 were injured in the fighting in northern Rakhine state and in next-door Paletwa township of Chin state from Dec. 2018 to this April, according to an RFA tally.
A university student who declined to give his name said that he had heard about the military's alleged human rights abuses in ethnic areas, but only now has he become more sympathetic.
"When internet service was shut down in Rakhine state, we understood that it was shut down to cut ties with the AA," he said. "We'd thought it wasn't a big deal because there has been a shutdown in Rakhine for a long time now."
"But now that we are facing the same situation, we understand their anguish," he said.
Min Ko Naing, a Myanmar democracy activist and former 88 Generation Students Group leader, called the junta "bloodthirsty," but said that the country's ethnic groups now were more united because of the coup.
"The junta is still threatening, still sowing dissent, still killing innocents, but we are still united," he said in a statement on Apr. 16.
"We in the cities are experiencing the same brutality and wickedness of the military like our brethren in ethnic areas," he said. "We have gradually come to understand each other more and more and feel more sympathy for one another."
Reported by July Myo for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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