On June 3, 2021, the National Unity Government released its policy position on the Rohingya, promising “right to citizenship”; “full enjoyment of citizens’ rights” for those who swear allegiance to the country; “repealing, amending, and promulgating laws including the 1982 Citizenship Law”; and “reparation and Justice” to be enshrined in the future constitution of Myanmar. It also promises “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation of Rohingyas who fled to neighboring countries from Rakhine State due to Tatmadaw violence”. (The Tatmadaw is a commonly used name for the Myanmar military.)
The NUG took this bold political step within two months of its establishment, perhaps with an expectation of concrete support from the international community, especially from Western democracies. This article aims to analyze why the subject in discussion is “bold”, and a “political gamble” that has yet to pay off, and what it means for those who sympathize with Rohingya people.
Buddhism in the politics of Myanmar
In order to comprehend why the Rohingya policy represents a bold political decision, one needs to understand the role of Buddhism in the politics of Myanmar, 89.8 percent of whose citizens are Buddhists.
Since independence from the British in 1948, successive political and military leaders have made use of the religion to advance their political power. Prime Minister U Nu made Buddhism the official state religion in 1961, leading to unrest among non-Buddhist ethnic minorities.
In 1962, General Ne Win used the unrest to justify a military coup. In 1980, he built the Maha Wizaya Pagoda.
Ne Win’s successor, General Than Shwe, built a replica in Naypyitaw of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and a jade Buddha statue. Besides this, he gave Buddhism “Special Position” status in the 2008 Constitution.
The government led by President Thein Sein (2011-2015) passed four laws collectively known as the “Race and Religion Protection Laws”. They were deemed as targeting Muslims because they criminalize polygamy, which is practiced by some Muslims in Myanmar. These were heavily promoted by the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha), which is often accused of promoting an anti-Muslim and ultra-nationalist agenda.
In 2018, the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ordered monasteries to fix the appearance of Buddha statues deemed “disgraceful”.
Min Aung Hlaing, who led the military coup of 2021, built the “Maravijaya” Buddha statue, which opened in August 2023, and recently ordered the arrest of 14 actors over a movie entitled “Don’t Expect Anything”, accusing them of committing blasphemy against Buddhism.
In short, Burmese political and military leaders have always portrayed themselves as the promoters and protectors of Buddhism, a stance that has obviously helped them strengthen their grip on power.
Official recognition or nonrecognition of the term “Rohingya” is a controversial and sensitive subject relating to identity. While the Rohingya believe they are one of the country’s 135 ethnic minorities, Myanmar governments have upheld the opposite policy. They are referred to as “Bengali”, implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The State Administration Council (SAC)—as the current junta calls itself—also insists that “Rohingya” is an “invented term” saying it has never existed in the legal and historical records of the country. The SAC says the name was invented to further the group’s wider political agenda to claim ethnicity and territorial status.
In his book “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century”, historian Thant Myint-U (2020, p: 26-27) also says that during its colonial rule over Burma, the British government never used the term “Rohingya”. Eleven Media (Oct. 2, 2017) argued that the British government knew that the Rohingya were never among the ethnicities of Myanmar, but nonetheless knowingly forced the country to accept them. Furthermore, Eleven Media said, the UK, US, European Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and UN are also pressuring Myanmar to recognize “Bengali” illegal immigrants as Rohingya. The article asks how Myanmar can accept “Bengali”, linking them to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group.
Policy confirms the SAC’s narrative
The NUG’s policy has been used by the SAC as political ammunition to rally domestic supporters and discredit the NUG and the People’s Defense Force resistance groups (PDFs). Through the state media the SAC directly responded to the Rohingya policy with the headline “NUG is selling the country”. The SAC attacked the NUG for using the term “Rohingya”, which it said has never been recognized, even by the National League for Democracy-led government, adding that the NUG intended to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law and planned to grant Rohingya citizenship. Citing the NLD’s formation of the commission led by the late former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, the SAC also accused the party of “internationalizing” a subject that had always been a “domestic issue”. It accused big countries and the OIC of trying to use the “Bengali” issue to suit their geopolitical interests and said the NUG seeks to resume the unfinished responsibilities left by the NLD.
Analysis of the texts clearly shows that the intended audience of the article is hardline Buddhists, and ethnic Rakhine people. In 2017, this author visited the head office of the Arakan National Party (ANP), the biggest Rakhine political party, in Sittwe and had a conversation about the country’s contemporary politics including the “Bengali” issue, regarding which they were on the same page with the military. This author is not aware of any Rakhine political party that publicly uses the term “Rohingya”, let alone supports granting them citizenship.
One may ask if the NUG sufficiently considered this Rohingya policy before formulating and announcing it. The sequence of events suggests that the NUG might have been too hasty in drafting and releasing the policy.
In April 2021, one day before the formation of the NUG, Dr. Win Myat Aye (Union minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement under the NLD-led government) made a public announcement on the challenges he faced under the heavy influence of the Tatmadaw. He used the term “Rohingya” when he said, “I empathize with Rakhine ethnic and Rohingya people” as many people have suffered under military rule. Dr. Win Myat Aye became the NUG’s Union minister for humanitarian affairs and disaster management.
On April 22, 2021, exactly one week after the NUG’s formation, at the Southeast Asia People’s Summit on Myanmar event, NUG Union Minister for Women, Youth and Children Affairs Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe publicly admitted that the NLD-led government did not do a good job in regards to gross human rights violations against ethnic minorities including the Rohingya. She said she was personally truly sorry and wanted to apologize for it. She added that the new government (presumably referring to the NUG) aimed to open a new page by establishing a society and country without discrimination and with full respect for human rights. Mizzima News notes that this was the first public admission by an NLD member or NUG Union minister on the subject.
Even though the admission and apology were made in Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe’s individual capacity, they had political implications for the one-week-old NUG. The public admission by one of its own cabinet members put the NUG in the hot seat; if it did not respond to this issue, it would expose a division within the infant NUG.
Following the announcement of the policy, this author had a chat with a well-known Burmese commentator, and asked what he made of it. “I am quite disappointed” he said. He questioned why the NUG tackled such a sensitive topic so early. In his view, making the policy public reaffirmed the SAC’s narrative that it is the true protector of race and religion, unlike the NLD and the resistance movement, who want to change the existing law in order to grant citizenship to foreign immigrants.
Muted response from international community
The NUG is the one and only political entity in Myanmar that has ever come out openly in support of the Rohingya community. The policy is clearly a “radical arrangement” and “significant departure from the past” and is a big (if not the biggest) political decision and political gamble in support of its efforts to gain diplomatic recognition and concrete material—including military—support. However, the overall international support the NUG has received so far indicates that the political gamble has not yet paid off.
Neither Gambia nor the OIC, which filed a case against the Tatmadaw before the International Court of Justice, have so far provided any concrete assistance to the NUG, despite its bold political decision on the Rohingya issue.
Western and neighboring countries continue to support the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus, which has not worked. Meanwhile, NUG supporters appreciate the continued support for the presence of Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun (who does not represent the SAC) at the United Nations. Eight countries have allowed the NUG to open liaison offices. It is also important to recognize that political and diplomatic support does not help much on the battlefield against the well-established and equipped military.
In a recent discussion with Voice of America, NUG Union Minister for International Cooperation Dr. Sasa said that unlike Ukrainian refugees, the whole world including neighboring countries have shut their doors to Myanmar refugees.
In comparison with Ukraine (although some argue the conflicts in the two countries are different in nature), the international support the NUG has received so far amounts to effectively nothing. For instance, between Jan. 24, 2022 and May 31, 2023, Ukraine received US$165.4 billion worth of military and humanitarian assistance from the international community. If the NUG were to receive even just 0.1 percent of what Ukraine enjoys, the situation could be much different. Unfortunately, international support has been disappointing.
There are obvious reasons why the international community is unwilling to supply the NUG with military support. However, it is disheartening to see that even humanitarian assistance is on the decline.
The ongoing civil war, Cyclone Mocha and seasonal floods have left 18 million people (one-third) of the country’s population, in need of humanitarian assistance. Aid workers in Kayah State said that the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), have not received any support from well-known international organizations. So far, they have been relying on donations from the Myanmar diaspora. Likewise, refugees who fled to neighboring Mizoram in India largely depend on the local community, with whom they share an ethnic affinity or bond, as they have received “little support” from the international community or agencies.
Effects on domestic politics
There are two indicators that this policy may have alienated some potential allies, especially ethnic Rakhine and some portion of the Bamar. First, the NUG has been unable to convince the Arakan Army (AA) to join the revolution. This is politically and militarily negative for the Spring Revolution because the AA is the most powerful and important military and political organization for ethnic Rakhine people.
The NUG’s Rohingya policy could surely be a reason why the AA has no interest in forming a political alliance with the NUG, because doing so would imply the AA is also supportive of the policy, which is widely rejected by the Rakhine community. For instance, Rakhine people are not supportive of the recommendations produced by the commission chaired by Annan.
Second, the policy confirms Bamar nationalists’ perception that the NLD and NUG are puppets of foreign countries pressuring Myanmar to receive illegal immigrants and grant them citizenship. Ma Ba Tha monks have been forming militias called Pyu Saw Htee to crush the NLD and other anti-regime forces in the name of race and religion. It is easy to sway rural communities under the pretext of religion. The SAC clearly has silent supporters who might be more sympathetic toward the NUG if the controversial policy had not been announced.
What does it all mean for those who sympathize with the Rohingya people? Two key points to acknowledge. First, the NUG’s Rohingya policy will be meaningful only if and when the NUG wins the revolution. It is obviously necessary to provide all possible support to enable the NUG to win the revolution so that it can be held accountable for implementing the policy later on.
Second, it is necessary to engage the AA to address the Rohingya issue because without the AA’s buy-in, the policy will be close to impossible to implement. The AA has proved that it cannot be crushed, even by the combined navy, air and army of the Tatmadaw in 2019, when it was not fighting any other groups. This means it is unlikely the new post-Spring Revolution government will be able to pressure the AA militarily, and therefore the AA’s political consent is necessary to implement the NUG’s controversial policy.
In short, Myanmar’s Spring Revolution is at a critical juncture in its effort to create a political structure conducive to all of its people. Without concrete support from the international community, there is a risk the revolution will be prolonged and even potentially that the country will be brought back to the old system under the 2008 Constitution. On the other hand, with concrete support, the political landscape will change for the betterment of all people including the Rohingya. It is time for those who sympathize with the Rohingya people and those in the international community who genuinely want to see sustainable peace in Myanmar to make bold decisions to support the resistance movement including the NUG. It is also essential that the NUG continues reaching out to the AA on the subject of the Rohingya, and the revolution.
Zung Ring is a social worker and independent political analyst based in Myanmar.