When Ronan Lee heard that Myanmar's military was in the process of overthrowing the civilian elements of the country's government, including state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, he felt a particular disappointment and concern distinct from others' worries about the state of democracy in the country. He felt "concerned about what it meant for Myanmar and the aspirations of its young people, and for the Rohingya whose situation is always worse when the military have power".
In his new book, Myanmar's Rohingya Genocide, Lee in effect predicted the current seizure of power by the military. "The Tatmadaw [the country's military] has undertaken coups in the past, and enforced decades of dictatorship."
Lee cites scholars (Taeko Hiroi and Sawa Omori) who note that in political systems such as Myanmar's, where the military has significant power but also allows some civilian government to exist in pretence, coups are more likely. This is provided the military has strong popular support – something the instigators of Myanmar's recent coup thought they did.
For years, Myanmar's military and its civilian government have co-operated, in a fashion, in power. This co-operation had tarnished the reputation of Suu Kyi before her latest imprisonment. She spent the past few years defending the military against a grave charge: that of committing one of the century's worst instances of ethnic cleansing, amounting to genocide.
Lee is a scholar of genocide with a focus on the persecution of the Rohingya people of Myanmar, who have been imprisoned and subjected to violence in Rakhine state. More than 700,000 have been driven from the country by the military since 2017, many becoming refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.
"The Rohingya are now the world's largest stateless group … while those who remain in Myanmar are subject to apartheid conditions, mass incarceration and genocide crimes," Lee writes.
His book documents a litany of these crimes, from direct violence at the hands of the military to the squalid conditions of camps where the Rohingya are housed within Myanmar, where “normal life cannot continue ... educational opportunities are scarce, medical facilities are limited, and there is little hope of work”.
The Rohingya are even provided with degraded identity documents, which reduces their rights to residency and citizenship.
Lee conducted fieldwork in Myanmar and its neighbouring countries, and his book is determined to tell the stories of the Rohingya themselves. But recent events meant we spoke also about the coup, and the activities of the civilian government that preceded it.
Is it helpful to understand Myanmar before the coup, as a democracy that it is possible – as some countries now demand – for the military to "restore"?
“Pre-coup Myanmar had elements of procedural democracy, with regular elections, but was far from the kind of system that would be widely understood as real democracy,” Lee says. “The military had a quarter of the seats in parliament reserved for them, could appoint their own government ministers to key portfolios and held a veto on constitutional change.”
What the military did not expect was the strength of popular opposition its seizure of power would encounter. Many across Myanmar have protested against the coup and the measures – such as restricting internet access – the military has used to cement its control.
“We are witnessing a battle of wills between a military that desires total power, and popular aspirations of Myanmar’s people for a genuinely democratic future.”
Before the coup, the civilian government worked closely with the military while the latter perpetrated an alleged genocide. The government did not draw attention to the crimes as they happened, nor condemn those it could not deny. Suu Kyi appeared personally before an International Court of Justice tribunal in defence of the country’s military.
When asked why so many Rohingya were fleeing the country, she feigned puzzlement, saying: "We want to find out why this exodus is happening." In December 2016, Suu Kyi's official Facebook page dismissed well-founded claims of sexual violence perpetrated by the military. These instances shattered her international reputation, something the coup may ironically reverse.
Was her support for the genocide a calculation intended to retain a veneer of civilian control? Suu Kyi’s support “went well beyond what would have been necessary for her to placate the military. She has presented herself to the public in Myanmar at numerous instances as an enthusiastic supporter of the military’s approach to the Rohingya,” Lee says.
“But if acquiescing to genocide crimes, war crimes and other crimes against humanity was the price of keeping the military on-side to avoid a coup, then that price was far too high.”
In any case, the civilian administration was unable to hold on to power. “When the military has power in Myanmar, it is always bad news for the Rohingya,” Lee says.
“Min Aung Hlaing [the coup’s leader] has described removing the Rohingya from Myanmar as ‘unfinished business’ from the Second World War, so it is unlikely now that he has grabbed political power that his views have changed.”
But there is hope. While it was assumed by the military and complicit civilian leadership that the genocide was broadly popular, public resistance to the coup shows the gulf between the military and the people of Myanmar.
“It is in the Rohingya’s collective interest for Myanmar to resist the coup and create a fully democratic country,” Lee says. “That’s why we have seen solidarity from Rohingya refugees with the protesters and even some of Yangon’s usually hidden Rohingya community joining protests in the city to demand real democracy.”
It is possible that if the coup might be resisted, so, too, could the worst excesses of the military.