Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s anti-military government protesters have flooded social media with pictures of themselves wearing black in a show of solidarity with the Rohingya, a minority group that is among the most persecuted in the country.
Since the military overthrew civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power in a February 1 coup, an anti-military movement demanding a return to democracy has grown to include fighting for ethnic minority rights.
The mostly-Muslim Rohingya – long viewed as interlopers from Bangladesh by many in Myanmar – have for decades been denied citizenship, rights, access to services and freedom of movement.
In 2017, a bloody military campaign in Myanmar’s west sent about 740,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh carrying accounts of rape, mass killings and arson.
The military has long claimed the crackdown was justified to root out rebels, and Aung San Suu Kyi defended the army’s conduct by travelling to the Hague to rebut charges of genocide at the UN’s top court.
The Myanmar public was largely unsympathetic to the Rohingya’s plight, while activists and journalists reporting on the issues faced vitriolic abuse online.
On Sunday, activists and civilians took to social media to post pictures of themselves wearing black and flashing a three-finger salute of resistance, in posts tagged “#Black4Rohingya”.
“Justice must [be] served for each of you and each of us in Myanmar,” prominent rights activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said on Twitter.
Local media also showed a small protest in Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon, with black-clad demonstrators holding signs in Burmese that said they were “protesting for the oppressed Rohingya”.
By the evening, the #Black4Rohingya hashtag was trending on Twitter in Myanmar with more than 332,000 mentions.
Sunday’s show of support from the mostly Buddhist, ethnic Bamar-majority population is a far cry from previous years when even using the term “Rohingya” was a lightning rod for controversy.
‘Solidarity is important’
Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told Al Jazeera that the #Black4Rohingya campaign has “received a huge support and solidarity from our fellow Burmese this year”.
“In the past, we only had international supporters but since the coup, we have received public apologies from individuals and organisations in Myanmar,” he added.
“The solidarity from our fellow Burmese is very important for us. We were friendless in our own country, regarded like enemies, intruders, interlopers and sub-humans but now many of them accepted Rohingya as their fellow citizens. Many of them realised that they were brainwashed by the military.
“The people who used to call us ‘Bengali’ are now calling us Rohingya. That means they are now respecting the very basic human rights.”
Prominent Europe-based Rohingya activist Ro Nay San Lwin told AFP news agency the online campaign is an annual effort to raise awareness but Sunday was “the first time” he had seen it go viral in Myanmar.
“I am so happy to see those inside Myanmar joined this campaign. I am more hopeful to have a stronger solidarity from them,” he said.
The shadow National Unity Government (NUG) – made up of overthrown lawmakers of Myanmar working to topple the military from power – has also extended an olive branch to the minority group, inviting them to “join hands… to participate in this Spring Revolution” in a recent announcement.
The NUG has been branded as “terrorists” by the military regime, while military leader Min Aung Hlaing has dismissed the word “Rohingya” as “an imaginary term”.
Since the coup earlier this year, more than 860 people have been killed in brutal crackdowns by security forces, according to a local monitoring group – a death toll that has drawn alarm from the international community.
On Friday, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Myanmar has plunged from a “fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe” – pointing with particular concern at the escalating violence in regions like Kayah, Chin and Kachin states.
State-run television on Sunday evening condemned Bachelet’s comments, saying that the international body “should not be biased”.