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Perpetrators in Power: Growing Mass Atrocity Risk in Post-coup Burma

By Megan Rodgers

Military personnel participates in a parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. —REUTERS/Stringer

One year ago, on February 1, 2021, Burma’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup and ushered in a new era of violence and terror. The Tatmadaw is the very group responsible for decades of persecution, denial of citizenship, and systemic discrimination against the Rohingya, a religious and ethnic minority group located primarily in Rakhine State. In August 2017, the military’s crimes culminated in genocide and led to the forced displacement of over 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh. Since last year’s coup, the Tatmadaw has suppressed widespread protests violently, killing approximately 1,500 civilians, including nearly 100 children.

The approximately 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Burma continue to face persecution, denial of citizenship, and restrictions on their freedom of movement that results in extreme limitations on access to basic healthcare and education. Since the coup, efforts to hold perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya accountable within Burma have stalled. Instead, the current judicial system falls under the complete control of the Tatmadaw.

In a policy brief released in August 2021, the Museum detailed the increased risk of mass atrocities, including genocide, against the Rohingya following the military coup and the possible scenarios in which such crimes could happen. 

One of the most concerning developments since the coup regarding the risk facing the Rohingya community has been the increased restriction on movement of Rohingya in Burma. The Tatmadaw is meting out harsher punishments against Rohingya who try to flee Rakhine State. As of late November 2021, Rohingya were required to receive permission from local military officials and pay a fee of 10,000 Myanmar kyat, a sum unattainable to many Rohingya, to visit the neighboring Maungdaw township. Previously, Rohingya only needed permission from the village administrator, who was sometimes a Rohingya, in order to make this trip. The new restriction bars Rohingya from vital medical care that is unavailable close to home and limits opportunities for economic advancement. Previous and current restrictions of this manner have been deliberately applied to limit the survival and economic opportunities of Rohingya communities, causing them to remain in extreme poverty and dependent on humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Rohingya refugees who have managed to escape the country face increased barriers to opportunity and persecution in crowded camps in Bangladesh and as they attempt to seek asylum in other countries. 

One bright spot is the movement towards international accountability for the genocide against the Rohingya. An International Court of Justice hearing considering Gambia’s claim that Burma has committed genocide is scheduled for February 21, 2022—the latest step in a case about whether Burma has failed to uphold its responsibility under the Genocide Convention. While it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw will accept the Court’s jurisdiction over this issue, this remains an important step towards international accountability as it publicly acknowledges the atrocities committed against Rohingya at a high level on the international stage. International efforts must be coupled with further efforts towards individual accountability and justice within Burma. 

Also alarming are reports that various Rohingya community leaders have been summoned by military officials and warned to cut any ties with the Arakan Army (AA), a non-state armed group that seeks self-determination for the Rakhine ethnic group. An informal ceasefire between the AA and Tatmadaw began in November 2020, but tensions remain high. The military coup, reports of recent clashes between the Tatmadaw and rebel groups, and consolidation of the AA’s control over parts of the country threaten this fragile peace. The AA and Rohingya have previously had a strained relationship, but AA leaders have recently made moves to include Rohingya in their struggle for self-determination—for example, by including Rohingya leaders in the AA's administrative and judicial system training programs at the village level. The Tatmadaw’s demands for Rohingya to cut ties with the AA were made without a specific threat of retaliation if leaders do not comply, but the direct confrontation by heavily armed officials suggests violent consequences for disobedience.

The Rohingya are not the only group facing increased persecution due to the Tatmadaw’s rise to power. Muslims throughout Burma and other ethnic or religious minority groups in areas where armed groups are fighting the Tatmadaw are also at risk. Muslims have been historically persecuted by the Tatmadaw and painted as a threat to the image of a unified Buddhist Burma. Other ethnic and religious minority groups also face the risk of mass atrocities by the Tatmadaw as civilian populations are blamed for actions of armed groups that claim to represent them. This risk is strong in areas including Chin State in northwestern Burma, where the Tatmadaw has attacked towns and forced approximately 30,000 people to flee. There also have been reports of a massacre in Kayah State of members of the Karenni ethnic group.

One year after the coup, the international community must renew its efforts to constrain the capacity of the Burmese military to commit mass atrocities, including through coordinated targeted sanctions. The BURMA Act, introduced in the House and Senate in response to the coup, is an important step. International actors should undertake a comprehensive assessment of mass atrocity risks and support efforts to advance justice for crimes committed by the Burmese military.

Megan Rodgers is a policy intern at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.