‘Don’t feel sorry for Suu Kyi’: Rohingya refugees on Myanmar coup

Mixed reactions to the military coup among the million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh’s sprawling camps amid concerns over their repatriation to Myanmar.

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have condemned the military coup in Myanmar but say they do not “feel sorry” for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s removal from power.

Speaking to Al Jazeera at the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, Rohingya community leader Mohammad Yunus Arman said the Myanmar military had killed their families in Rakhine state while Aung San Suu Kyi was in power.

“She remained silent about it. She didn’t even utter the word ‘Rohingya’. Once we used to pray for her success and used to treat her like our queen. But after 2017, we realised her real character,” he said.

On Monday, Myanmar’s powerful military seized power in a coup against the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained along with other political leaders. The army in the Buddhist-majority South Asian nation also declared a state of emergency for one year.

“We don’t feel sorry that she [Suu Kyi] is overthrown from power now,” said Arman.

Rohingya community leader Mohammad Yunus Arman at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh [Abdul Aziz/Al Jazeera] Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh is home to more than one million mostly Muslim Rohingya living in cramped, makeshift camps – the world’s largest refugee settlement – after they fled a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state which the United Nations said was carried out with a “genocidal intent”.

Myanmar said it was committed to the repatriation of the Rohingya as per a bilateral agreement, with Bangladesh expecting the process to start later this year.

Last month, Dhaka started relocating some of the refugees to Bhasan Char, an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal. So far, nearly 7,000 Rohingya have been sent to the flood-prone island.

Meanwhile, the coup in Myanmar following a landslide win by Aung San Suu Kyi’s governing National League for Democracy party in November 2020 has raised questions over the Rohingya repatriation.

“For the past four years, we have been talking about our safe return to our homeland in Myanmar, but no progress has been made on that front,” Arman told Al Jazeera.

Sayed Ullah, another Rohingya community leader at Thaingkhali camp, told Al Jazeera they are not concerned about the military takeover in their homeland.

“We have long been living under the military regime. The civilian government of Aung Sun Suu Kyi did nothing for us. They didn’t protest the genocide which on our community,” he said.

Rohingya community leader Sayed Ullah at Thaingkhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh [Abdul Aziz/Al Jazeera] Ullah, however, feared a military takeover means “a more uncertain repatriation process”.

“Now that the military is in power, we feel our repatriation process is further stalled. There is no way the army would let us get back to our homeland,” he said.

Disquiet in Bangladesh

The coup has disquieted Bangladesh, which fears the new military government might not keep up its end of the agreement to repatriate the Rohingya.

The neighbours had been at odds in the past few years over the repeatedly stalled repatriation process, prompting Dhaka to send some refugees to Bhasan Char.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Tuesday, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said a regime change in Myanmar “doesn’t necessarily impede the repatriation process”.

“We have to wait and see,” he said, adding that Bangladesh is concerned about the coup in Myanmar.

“We always believe in upholding the democratic process. A military coup can’t be the solution,” he said.

In a statement issued on Monday in response to the coup, Bangladesh’s foreign ministry said: “As an immediate and friendly neighbour, we would like to see peace and stability in Myanmar.”

“We have been persistent in developing mutually beneficial relations with Myanmar and have been working with Myanmar for the voluntary, safe and sustained repatriation of the Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh,” it said.

Removed the ‘facade of democracy’

International relations experts say the coup in Myanmar has removed the “facade of democracy” in the country, and that the probability of repatriating the Rohingya has further diminished.

“You can’t have a real democracy when 25 percent seats are automatically allocated to the military, which also controls four of the major ministries. So despite elections, the military never really gave up power,” Azeem Ibrahim, author of the book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, told Al Jazeera.

Ibrahim said the government, which denied millions of its own citizens the right to vote “was never a proper democracy”.

He said he fears the Myanmar military will now “do as it pleases” and urged the international community to “draw red lines in with severe penalties if the military attempts to increase its targeting of minority groups”.

“This is also Joe Biden’s first foreign policy test,” he added, referring to the newly-installed president of the United States.

Ali Riaz, professor at Illinois State University in the US, told Al Jazeera the democratisation process that started in 2011 in Myanmar resulted in “a hybrid regime – a regime which has both democratic and authoritarian traits”.

In that year, Myanmar started a transition to civilian government after five decades of military rule.

“It was a non-inclusive and repressive system. Suu Kyi’s government was beholden to the military all along with very little scope to manoeuvre on policy issues. However, it was one step away from military autocracy. The coup has put back the clock. What we are witnessing is the regression from hybrid regime to military authoritarianism,” he said.

Riaz said he saw no difference between the military and the civilian government in Myanmar as far as the question of Rohingya repatriation was concerned.

“Suu Kyi government was representing the position of the military. The policy of ethnic cleaning was designed and began to be implemented by the military well before Suu Kyi government came to power,” he said.

“Suu Kyi government’s connivance accelerated it further. There is no reason to think the military has any intention to change the course unless there are enough international pressures.”

Abdul Aziz from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh contributed to this report