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Since February’s coup, Bamar people who once ignored the persecution of Rohingya are now finding common cause in resistance to the junta – and in hope for a more inclusive society

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Demonstrators hold signs apologizing for their past failures to support Rohingya in Monywa, Myanmar, this past Aug. 25. It was the fourth anniversary of the start of a military campaign of killings and arson against Rohingya, a majority-Muslim ethnic group in a mostly Buddhist Southeast Asian country.Kaung Hsu Thar/The Globe and Mail

In the eight months since a military coup, Myanmar’s ethnic majority has shown unprecedented efforts to build solidarity with long-persecuted minorities, including the Rohingya, and to make amends for failures to stand with them in the past.

Since the military seized power on Feb. 1, its forces have killed more than 1,100 unarmed protesters and bystanders, including at least 75 children. More than 8,300 people have been arrested, some of whom were tortured or forcibly disappeared, human-rights groups say.

Many of these victims were from the country’s Bamar majority.

Experiencing military violence firsthand provoked an outpouring of empathy among Bamar people for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and the decades of human-rights abuses they have endured.

The motivation to reconcile has also been strengthened by the widespread desire to hold the military accountable for its prior and current crimes, and to engage broader support in the anti-coup resistance movement.

Before the coup, the plight of the country’s Rohingya population, who were victims of a 2017 military campaign of arson, killing and sexual violence that drove some 730,000 to flee to Bangladesh, had particularly been ignored by the Bamar majority and, in many cases, denied. But perspectives are now changing.

“Previously, the Bamar majority enjoyed freedoms while ethnic people were heavily attacked by the Myanmar military,” said Htike Htike, a Rohingya researcher and human-rights activist.

“The Feb. 1 coup has taken away every sort of freedom in the country, so people woke up and said ‘We need to work for freedom and justice.’ ”

She and other activists are now trying to build upon this momentum to ensure that beyond fighting against a common enemy and achieving justice for the military’s abuses, the people of Myanmar genuinely keep ethnic inclusion at the core of the resistance movement and seek to build a new society based on equal rights.

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State violence in Myanmar, then and now: At top, Rohingya head toward the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh in November, 2017, fleeing Myanmar's campaign of arson and killing; at bottom, police hold down a protester on the outskirts of Yangon in March of 2021, a month after a military coup.DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images; The Associated Press

In addition to its attacks on the Rohingya, the military’s history of indiscriminate violence against ethnic minorities, including Karen, Kachin, Rakhine, Shan and Chin, has been extensively documented. But the state presented a counternarrative that was commonly accepted.

The widely popular elected National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which came to power in 2016 but shared authority with the military – as laid out in the military-drafted constitution – did little to change this narrative. Instead, it restricted access to areas where the military committed human-rights abuses and prosecuted journalists and ethnic-minority activists.

A United Nations-commissioned report, released in 2018, identified “clear patterns of violations” by the military across the country. It called for Myanmar’s top generals to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya in relation to the violence perpetrated in 2017, where the investigators documented gang rape and “planned and deliberately executed mass killing” of thousands of civilians, among other crimes. But the NLD government dismissed these as “false allegations.”

Within this context, public distrust for international reports of the military’s abuses was normalized, and when Ms. Suu Kyi defended Myanmar from genocide charges at the International Court of Justice in 2019, many people rallied behind her, while activists who stood with the Rohingya faced harassment and threats.

But mainstream views have since changed. “People are aware now ... and they have started to empathize about what happened to the Rohingya,” Ms. Htike Htike said.

“The state or military narrative had been supported in the past ... but now, the people don’t support these sorts of narratives.”

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Protesters in Monywa gather on Aug. 25 to show solidarity with Rohingya.Kaung Hsu Thar/The Globe and Mail

This shift was especially apparent on Aug. 25, the four-year anniversary of the start of the military’s 2017 campaign against the Rohingya. In contrast to years past, when the public in Myanmar took little notice, this year’s anniversary was commemorated with numerous online events, statements of solidarity and apologies.

Activist Me Me Khant wrote a poem, of which one verse reads: “We didn’t hear you scream. Sorry isn’t enough, I know, my sisters. Still, I am sorry.”

Several protests on Aug. 25 were also dedicated to the Rohingya. In the central city of Monywa, university student and women’s rights activist Chaw Su San led about 100 people in chants of “Oppressed Rohingya women’s cause is our cause.”

“We as women can only resist military oppression with unity, absent religious or ethnic discrimination,” she said. Among various placards at the protest, which called for the military to be held accountable for its history of sexual violence, some of the protesters held signs reading: “We are sorry for our ignorance.”

“We did not commit [the military’s] acts of violence, but we ignored them. That is why we apologize,” Ms. Chaw Su San said. “To create a just and equitable society, it is important to ensure Rohingya and other ethnic groups’ participation. The military must be punished for its crimes against the Rohingya, while we, the people, must make up for our past ignorance.”

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Ms. Suu Kyi, along with President Win Myint and other elected officials, was arrested on the morning of the coup; she remains under house arrest while on trial for various charges that the junta has issued against her, including owning unlicensed walkie-talkies.

In April, a committee of elected lawmakers in absentia announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG), which operates in exile. Its cabinet includes several ethnic-minority activists and its acting president, Duwa Lashi La, is an ethnic Kachin.

Some NUG members have issued personal apologies for their prior failures to stand with the Rohingya, while Dr. Sasa, the NUG’s spokesperson, who goes by one name, consistently uses the phrase “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” and has been a vocal advocate for Rohingya rights.

Showing a marked departure from NLD policies, the NUG has taken firm steps toward ethnic reconciliation. In June, it announced it would abolish a 1982 law that denies citizenship to Rohingya people and other groups not classified as among Myanmar’s 135 “national races.”

In a statement, the NUG said that Rohingya people “are entitled to citizenship” by law, in accordance with “fundamental human-rights norms,” and invited the Rohingya to “join hands with us and with others” in the fight against military dictatorship. It also pledged to support Rohingya refugees’ safe, voluntary and dignified returns from Bangladesh, and to seek justice and accountability for the military’s crimes against the Rohingya and others throughout Myanmar.

In August, the NUG accepted the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction to prosecute international crimes committed within the country.

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Supporters of the National Unity Government rally in Yangon this past July 7.AFP via Getty Images

But some activists are pushing the NUG, which has no Rohingya ministers and only recently appointed its first Rohingya representative to an advisory role, to do more. Among them is Thet Swe Win, a long-time human-rights activist who created an online petition calling for the NUG to recognize Aug. 25 as National Apology Day and to call the violence that the military committed against the Rohingya a genocide.

“Apologizing is important because it shows to the people that [the NUG] realize what [successive governments] did wrong, and are opening up for further steps like reconciliation, trust building and unity,” he said.

The petition gathered more than 5,000 signatures, and although it has not yet been successful, Mr. Thet Swe Win isn’t giving up. “We still have to criticize [the NUG] and talk to them about [ethnic] issues,” he said. “We should not close our eyes for the NUG, or say this is a revolutionary time and let it be.”

He is also speaking out from his platform as a prominent activist to ensure that the NUG and the Bamar public are sincere and committed in their calls for solidarity and ethnic inclusion, and do not use ethnic minorities for short-term political gain. “The people who are apologizing ... really have to feel and understand all the issues,” he said.

But the transformation in public mindsets that he has seen since the coup has given him hope that levels of ethnic unity, equality and social cohesion, which once seemed unimaginable, are now possible. “This is the best time to think for a new society. ... For everyone to understand each other, forgive each other and love each other,” he told The Globe and Mail. “This is the best time for the whole nation to reconcile.”

Additional reporting by Nu Nu Lusan

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017 From the archives: Myanmar’s front lines of horror

In the fall of 2017, The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe visited the troubled border of Myanmar and Bangladesh and spoke with refugees struggling to make sense of a world turned upside down.

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