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When you think of Aung San Suu Kyi, civilian leader of Myanmar, what comes to mind?
For decades, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was known in the West as a human rights icon. But since 2017, when international newspapers filled with images of fleeing Rohingya refugees, she has been increasingly condemned for her failure to stem the persecution.
In Myanmar, however, many people rallied around Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi as she defended the government from charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in December. Discussion of abuses is largely taboo – and even the word “Rohingya” discouraged. People speaking out about the issue, or simply reporting on it, have been branded traitors.
“A lot of people misunderstood [and thought] that the nation and people are on trial, not the state and the government,” says activist Htuu Lou Rae. He himself started to question the state narrative in high school, when he befriended a Rohingya classmate.
Mr. Htuu Lou Rae is among a handful of fellow activists who have pushed back against the silence. Despite fears of being attacked, they’ve shown up at rallies with T-shirts and brochures about the genocide case.
The “violation of [Rohingyas’] freedoms, and injustice and discrimination they suffer, is my problem as much as theirs,” he says.
When Ei Thinzar Maung handed out T-shirts in downtown Yangon bearing the words “I stand against genocide in Myanmar,” she knew the risks.
It was Dec. 21, 2019. Less than two weeks before, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to the International Court of Justice to “defend the national interest” from charges of genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority. Meanwhile, back home, thousands rallied across the country under the banners “We stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” and “We stand with Myanmar.”
“People who are speaking against [the state] have become traitors of the nation,” says Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung. Despite their fear of being attacked, she and two fellow activists wanted to show that not all people of Myanmar stood with the state.
“We wanted to at least have a clear conscience,” she says.
Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have long faced systematic discrimination, including limited access to health care and education, and restrictions of movement. In late 2017, more than 730,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh amid widespread killing, rape, and arson by the Myanmar military.
A United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission found that the attacks were carried out with genocidal intent, and in November, Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of genocide. But in the face of international condemnation, Myanmar has rallied around embattled civilian leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning former human rights icon. She and the government have denied genocide took place, and defended the military’s actions as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.
Meanwhile, discussion of abuses committed against the Rohingya is largely taboo – and even the word “Rohingya” itself discouraged by the government.
“The idea of following a leader has been quite enshrined in the culture,” says Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung. “From young, you are taught [to consider] not what you want to do, but what you can do for your country.”
“You are talking too much”
In the eyes of many Burmese, the Rohingya are illegal interlopers from Bangladesh who threaten to swallow Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. Yet they trace their history in Myanmar back hundreds of years, and made up only about 2% of the country’s population prior to the exodus in 2017. Within Myanmar, international coverage of their persecution is commonly discredited as fake news, and Rohingya are often referred to as “Bengali.”
While Western critics have condemned Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to use the word “Rohingya,” the pro-military opposition has criticized her government for being soft on the issue. In January, after Yangon’s chief minister used the word “Rohingya,” 21 parties published a statement accusing him of attacking the nation while it faced judgment at the international court.
“If you say the word Rohingya, you will face problems,” said J Paing, the only photojournalist to cover the T-shirt campaign. After he posted photos of the event on his Facebook page, a prominent journalist called him a “national traitor.”
“When you talk about this issue, even your close friends will say, ‘You are talking too much,’” Mr. J Paing says.
Htuu Lou Rae, who grew up in Yangon and organized the T-shirt event, says he first started to question the state narrative in high school, when he befriended a Rohingya classmate. Today, he is the director of Coexist Myanmar, which promotes peace between Buddhist and Muslim communities, and a coordinator of the civil rights group Doa-A-Yae.
The “violation of [Rohingyas’] freedoms, and injustice and discrimination they suffer, is my problem as much as theirs,” he says. “We need to redefine that to be Burmese is to stand with freedom, justice and equality of all, to stand against genocide, and to stand with international legal mechanisms which prevent and punish genocide.”
The current climate, Mr. Htuu Lou Rae argues, results from the overlap between Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, ethnonationalism, and misreporting by the state and private media.
“The strong stand against the ICJ is partly due to ignorance of what is going on. The language barrier, misreporting by the local media, and legal jargon make it very hard to make sense of the nature of the lawsuit,” he says. “A lot of people misunderstood [and thought] that the nation and people are on trial, not the state and the government.”
“Genocide is un-Burmese,” Mr. Htuu Lou Rae adds. “What is needed to put a curb on illiberal nationalisms – especially in civil society – is moral courage in the face of obstacles.”
See no evil
On Jan. 23, the International Court of Justice ruled to impose provisional measures on Myanmar as the overall case continues, ordering the government to prevent future acts of genocide and not to destroy evidence.
In response, Myanmar’s state media published a statement titled “There was No Genocide in Rakhine,” saying accusers have “presented a distorted picture of the situation.”
At the international court hearing, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi described violence against the Rohingya as part of an internal armed conflict, provoked by attacks on military outposts by a Rohingya militant group. Myanmar’s military justice system – not the international court – should hold perpetrators accountable, she said.
Loyalty to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains strong among the country’s Burmese Buddhist majority. Popular support reached a fervor in the weeks surrounding her appearance at the international court. Many adopted a temporary “I stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” Facebook profile frame – a campaign that surfaced during the 2017 violence in Rakhine State – while similar posters appeared in homes and shops.
“Before, Daw Suu was my idol,” recalls Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung, referring to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. “When I saw her face, oh! I wanted to be like her. ... But the funny thing is, she’s not my idol anymore. Things changed.”
On Dec. 10, she and two other activists set up a table with the banner “I stand against genocide. Change my mind,” and distributed brochures at a rally to support Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
“When people stopped, we wanted to ask them, how did the hatred spread like this?” says Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung. Few people the activists spoke with had a clear idea of the international court case or the concepts behind it, says table organizer Zin Linn, but most were friendly. Within 30 minutes, however, police told them they were prohibited from handing out pamphlets, and they dispersed.
Yet once photos and videos of the rally and T-shirt event circulated online, the activists were accused of being funded by or part of an Islamic conspiracy – a common charge toward those speaking out on the Rohingya issue. Hate speech was scrawled across screenshots of their photos, and they received threats of violence, including one death threat by video call.
Fear or harassment, and worse, has led many journalists to self-censor, Mr. J Paing says. Last May, two Reuters journalists were released following more than 500 days in prison in relation to their investigation of the September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya. Earlier this month, the military sued Reuters for criminal defamation over an article on the death of two Rohingya women, though the case was withdrawn March 18.
For Mr. J Paing, however, “to not publish is like closing one’s eyes.”
“When people see photos, they can think. I will give all the information I have,” he says. “If they don’t see it, they won’t know, and if they don’t know, racism can increase.”