Military songs rang out across downtown Yangon today as tens of thousands rallied in defence of Myanmar’s army, an institution accused by the global community of driving Rohingya Muslims from the country. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled western Rakhine state to Bangladesh since late August when raids by militants from the minority group were met with ruthless army “clearance operations”.
The United Nations has led global condemnation, calling the crackdown a “textbook” example of ethnic cleansing. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson phoned army chief Min Aung Hlaing earlier this week to express his concerns at alleged atrocities in Rakhine state and urge a swift and safe return for the Rohingya.
But inside Myanmar support for the army has surged — an unlikely turnaround for a once feared and hated institution that ruled for 50 years and whose lawmakers lost heavily in 2015 polls. Those elections sent Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party into power, but the Rohingya crisis has put her government on the backfoot.
Demonstrators carried banners lauding Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and rebuking the international community for “pressuring the Tatmadaw” — as Myanmar’s army is known. “The Tatmadaw is essential for the country, it protects our ethnic groups, races and religion,” Nan Aye Aye Kyi, 54, told AFP as the rally snaked through Yangon to the iconic Sule Pagoda.
The Rohingya are not recognised as one of Myanmar’s patchwork of ethnic groups. Fear of a Muslim takeover of Buddhist-majority Myanmar through Rakhine state has been kindled over decades by the army, which is now casting itself as saviour of the nation. Kyaw Than, 64, a retired sergeant who served in the army for 41 years said the Tatmadaw “is protecting the whole country”, adding allegations of murder, rape and arson against the Rohingya were “not true”.
But international pressure is tightening. The US is weighing targeted sanctions against key military leaders, while Pope Francis is scheduled to talk peace on a landmark visit to the country next month. Aung San Suu Kyi has faced the sharp end of global outcry over the crisis, with fellow Nobel laureates joining a cast of world leaders in urging her to condemn the army and speak up for the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi’s supporters say the once garlanded rights champion is hamstrung, with any criticism of the still-dominant army likely to provoke a strong response. The army has unassailable control of all security matters and has only begun to cede other law-making powers to civilian government over the last few years.