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 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.