The Latest on Southeast Asia: January 6, 2022

Nearly one year has passed since the February 1 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Myanmar, and the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. On December 28, the U.S. State Department condemned the military’s attacks on “innocent people and humanitarian actors” in Kayin (Karen) and Kayah (Karenni) states. During a recent trip to Indonesia and Malaysia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States was considering new sanctions against the junta.
The military has increased retaliatory attacks throughout Myanmar. Videos have shown troops burning and razing villages in Chin State, which has emerged as a stronghold for both armed and civilian resistance to the junta. The Chin National Front was the first ethnic armed organization to officially ally itself with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG). As of December 13, Human Rights Watch estimates that the conflict in Myanmar has displaced over 284,000 people, with 22,000 refugees spilling into India and Thailand. Military defectors have confirmed that soldiers have been ordered to target civilians, including women and children, corroborating accounts by victims on the ground.
Myanmar’s displaced Rohingya population, meanwhile, continues to face impossible choices. The more than 700,000 who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 2017 continue to live in squalid and dangerous conditions. This week, a fire engulfed part of Cox’s Bazar, including a Covid-19 treatment center and other structures in the Kutupalong refugee camp—the world’s largest. Before the fire, the Bangladeshi government had bulldozed over 2,000 “illegal” Rohingya shops in the camp in response to a surge in Covid-19 cases in December.
Despite the perilous journey, some Rohingya continue to try to escape Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat, usually seeking work in Malaysia. One such boat from Bangladesh—reportedly leaking, engine-less, and carrying about 120 refugees—tried to land last week in Indonesia’s Aceh province after nearly a month at sea. The Indonesian government repeatedly turned them away. Authorities finally relented in the face of pressure from local fishers and wide-scale protests, allowing the boat to land.
Those Rohingya still in Myanmar remain in a precarious political position since the February coup. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who now leads the military junta, helped orchestrate the campaign of ethnic cleansing against them. The NUG, consisting mainly of former lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD), has appealed to the Rohingya, promising them full citizenship. But this is a recent and still untested political conversion. When it was in power, the NLD headed by Aung San Suu Kyi first turned a blind to the ethnic cleansing campaign and then defended it at The Hague.
And then there is the separatist Arakan Army (AA), which has consolidated control over most of Rakhine State while the Myanmar military directs its attention elsewhere. The AA leadership, like that of the NUG, has assured international audiences that it will respect Rohingya rights and citizenship. But after years of communal violence and support for ethnic cleansing by some Arakanese politicians, Rohingya have reason to be nervous about their future in an autonomous Arakan/Rakhine.
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