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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar parallel government woos Rohingya in bid for legitimacy

NUG embraces Muslim minority to win foreign support but may backfire at home

The NUG gained a sliver of hope for a possible path back to power by taking a groundbreaking position toward the Rohingya. (Source photos by Getty Images and Kachinwaves/AFP/Jiji)

BANGKOK -- In its quest for international recognition as the legitimate representative of Myanmar, the country's anti-coup shadow government is making a calculated gamble amid a grim political landscape since the February military coup.

The National Unity Government (NUG), a government in exile made up of politicians who won seats in parliament during the November election, generated a sliver of hope of a possible path back to power this month with its groundbreaking position toward the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has endured decades of Myanmar's state-sanctioned policies of brutality, including ethnic cleansing.

The NUG formally marked this about-turn when it released its Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State. The three-page document contains conciliatory language and progressive pledges to improve the fate of Rohingya, which the U.N. has called the most persecuted people in the world.

While Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country of 54 million people, the policy paper goes against the grain of the deeply rooted, anti-Rohingya sentiment that has been widespread for decades among the country's majority Bamar-Buddhist ethnic population.

"We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history," the paper states. "We further commit to abolishing the process of using National Verification Cards, a process that the military has used against Rohingyas and other ethnic groups coercively and with human rights violations."

The NUG's olive branch has raised hopes, albeit with some reservations, among leading human rights campaigners in the Rohingya diaspora.

"The policy position of the NUG on the Rohingya is a positive step forward, but it is far from perfect," Tun Khin, president of the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organization of the United Kingdom, said. "We're happy to see the NUG's commitment to repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law, for example, but we need to see much clearer commitments on issues like ethnic rights for the Rohingya and support for the international justice process."

He and other Rohingya leaders got an early hint about the ground shifting in Myanmar on the Rohingya question within weeks after Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing staged the coup on Feb. 1 to thwart a second term of the incumbent government of the National League for Democracy, which won November's general elections in a landslide.

When the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, unleashed a campaign of brutality against anti-coup protests that spread in the country's main cities like Yangon and Mandalay, home to the majority Bamar-Buddhists, Twitter accounts of Rohingya leaders like Tun Khin lit up with a steady stream of apologies for past atrocities.

"This is an unprecedented situation and it has been heartening to see the outpouring of public support for the Rohingya," Tun Khin said, adding his Twitter account was flooded with messages from Bamar people, apologizing for spewing hatred against the Rohingya.

"They are finally realizing that the Tatmadaw is the common enemy of all of Myanmar," he added.

One tweet he received in March said: "Apologies from the family members of University of Medicine (1) students union for ignoring #RohingyaGenocide. Our common enemy is #MinAungHlaing. Together we will win this fight."

In 2017, while Myanmar was governed by a NLD administration that presented itself as pro-democracy, the Tatmadaw launched a brutal offensive in the western state of Rakhine, forcing nearly 740,000 Rohingya to flee ethnic cleansing to neighboring Bangladesh.

The exodus swelled the number of Rohingya refugees to nearly 1.1 million, adding to the hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya who fled previous anti-Rohingya pogroms in Myanmar. The accounts from 2017 of rape, mass killings and arson laid military commanders and troops open to charges of genocide in a case brought by Gambia before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

NLD leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, faced international criticism for her inaction during the 2017 crisis.

Since the coup, Myanmar-based human rights monitors like the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners have accused the junta of killing over 880 people in efforts to crush the groundswell of popular anger against the coup. The death toll includes 72 children while more than 6,300 people have been arrested.

For veteran Southeast Asian diplomats, the NUG's outreach to the Rohingya has broader international calculations since it is lobbying for support in Western capitals to be recognized as the legitimate government in Myanmar. The campaign is being led by some of its public faces in exile, such as Dr. Sasa, the minister of international cooperation, and Kyaw Moe Tun, the pro-NUG ambassador at the United Nations.

"The NUG's quest for international recognition has been tied up with the rights of the Rohingya," said Kobsak Chutikul, a former Thai ambassador who served as secretary of an international commission set up by the NLD government on the Rohingya issue after the 2017 bloodletting. "The NUG is aware that clarity on the Rohingya issue is crucial for international recognition."

This Rohingya "litmus test," as Kobsak described it, initially caught the NUG off guard, revealing why ignoring the Rohingya weakens its case for international legitimacy.

In May, lawmakers in Washington were not impressed by answers from Kyaw Moe Tun during a virtual hearing on Myanmar crisis held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. "The U.S. should not support the National Unity Government in Burma unless it includes Rohingya representation. The prior government killed Rohingya with genocidal intent," remarked California congressman Ted Lieu in a tweet, referring to Myanmar's former name.

This change of political fortunes has been welcomed by the Rohingya, who have struggled for decades to get a sympathetic hearing in Myanmar and even internationally.

"The Rohingya feel empowered at the way they are being recognized in the international community during meetings with the NUG," said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a civil society organization that campaigns for Rohingya human rights.

The Rohingya are finally being acknowledged by the political leaders in Myanmar, she added. "This is a significant shift. The narrative has changed and they are talking to each other, listening to each other, which is a good sign of the NUG's efforts."

But questions still hang over the NUG's rush to embrace the Rohingya: will it backfire and feed the reactionary ethno-nationalism that the junta is upholding, which taps into the Bamar-Buddhist contempt toward the Rohingya?

Analysts in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, say the country's older generation and aging politicians are still not on the same page toward solidarity with the Rohingya unlike the more progressive younger generation, millennials, and professionals in the middle class, all of whom have been in the vanguard of the anti-coup protests.

"Older politicians and members of the public think they are going too far and they could lose their public support if they keep calling for the rights of the Rohingya," said Nay Yan Oo, a Yangon-based political analyst. Support for the Rohingya "is still a strong sentiment among progressives in urban areas. But among a wider group and those not on Facebook -- the rural, older people -- it is not that much."

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