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Why Myanmar’s Junta Might Give Brief Reprieve to Embattled Muslim Minority

In this June 26, 2014 photo, a girl, self-identified as Rohingya, stands close to her family's tent house at Dar Paing camp for refugees, suburbs of Sittwe, Western Rakhine state, Myanmar. Suu Kyi's many supporters overseas have been dismayed by her…

Myanmar’s military government, seen as the chief force behind previous long-term violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority, is leaving the population alone for now as it battles protesters. But analysts say the junta is expected to resume the old crackdown over time.

The junta seized power in a February coup from a civilian government and has been focused on quelling protesters, rather than the Rohingya minority that lives in a western region of Myanmar and continues to push for civil rights. At least 11 protesters were killed on Monday and 57 over the weekend in the bloodiest period since the military coup last month, the United Nations says on its website.

“The Tatmadaw is not going to change its policy toward the Rohingyas,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “Tatmadaw” refers to the armed forces in the Myanmar language.

“Right now, it’s just preoccupied,” he said. “I think it has been consumed by other crises and it’s actually facing a nationwide revolt against the coup, so I think the Rohingya issue now is on the back burner.” The protests could turn into a “prolonged crisis”, he added.

Myanmar officials had targeted the Rohingyas in a “systematic” way, the U.N. International Court of Justice said last year. It said “genocidal acts” including mass murder, rape and setting fires were intended to wipe out the group and cited a hardening crackdown since August 2017.

Civilian governments ran Myanmar from 2011 through this past January, but the military still held sway in national affairs. The Rohingya issue tainted the international reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, a one-time opposition figure and the de facto head of state from 2016 through February. She was detained after the coup.

An estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar today. Conflicts with the government have left them without access to healthcare, education and a viable market for commercial trade places, said Tun Khin, president of the advocacy group Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. Roughly one million Rohingyas who have fled to camps in Bangladesh live there now in poverty.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has a long history of strife with the Muslim Rohingya dating back to the alliance between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s former colonizer, Britain, who fought together against a local Buddhist group. After Myanmar became independent in 1948, the government of the largely Buddhist country denied the Rohingya people citizenship. The Military led Myanmar from 1962 to 2011.

Junta lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe said Myanmar’s generals want to repatriate Rohingyas who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, Reuters reported on March 7.

The military government showed a further relaxing toward old rivals on March 11 by removing a rebel group, the Arakan Army, from a formal list of terrorist organizations. The group had quit its attacks to seek peace, the state-run Mirror Daily said as cited in foreign media outlets.

“Most people outside (the country) don’t realize how serious it is -- they’re all fixated on this Rohingya issue,” Priscilla Clapp, former permanent charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar, told VOA in June.

Fighting with the Arakan Army in Rakhine state had added a threat to the Rohingya's troubles. The state is a major base for Rohingya who remain in the country.

Today’s government envisions building “nationwide eternal peace”, the Mirror Daily report said.

In January last year, the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to "take all measures within its power" to prevent any acts of genocide against the Rohingya people.

But Tun Khin said he’s “worried” that the military government will eventually try to eliminate all Rohingyas in the country. He estimates 82% of the population has already fled Myanmar.

“I don’t trust this military, because this is the military that architected the genocide of Rohingyas for so long,” he said.