In the week since the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, exile Nay San Lwin has been inundated with dozens of messages from his compatriots offering support.
It’s a dramatic change from 2017, when the rights activist, now living in Germany, was disseminating information about the atrocities Myanmar’s military had unleashed against his community—the mostly Muslim Rohingya, who live in the west of the country. Back then, the majority of the messages he received from other Burmese consisted of death threats and abuse.
About two-thirds of the population of the Southeast Asian nation are of the Bamar ethnicity, who are generally Buddhist and dominate the governing class. The other third is made up of over 100 ethnic minorities, many of whom have faced persecution at the hands of the military—especially the Rohingya. U.N. investigators say the armed forces of Myanmar, officially known as the Tatmadaw, have waged war against the Rohingya with “genocidal intent.”
The Rohingya found no support from the civilian government. Indeed, in 2019 Aung San Suu Kyi notoriously defended the Tatmadaw in a hearing at the Hague, and just two weeks before the coup, her government filed preliminary objections to the International Court of Justice over the genocide case it faces. The general population had no sympathy either; many Burmese consider the Rohingya to be Bangladeshi migrants, even though the Rohingya have centuries of history in Myanmar.
But in the wake of the Feb. 1 coup, some Burmese are finally changing their views of their Muslim countrymen. Says Nay San Lwin, who gained 3,000 new Twitter followers in a day last week: “They are now realizing the common enemy is the military.”
Some have even begun apologizing to Yanghee Lee. The former U.N. Special Rapporteur was hailed by the rights community as a “champion of justice for Rohingyas,” while being vilified in Myanmar. When she tweeted a call for the release of Suu Kyi on Feb. 4, the thread filled up with expiations.
“I do want to apologize the way I treated you in recent years regarding Rohingya,” said one user. “[Forgive] me for misunderstanding you. In the recent years, we were narrow-minded,” read another tweet.
Lily (a nickname), who lives in Yangon, tells TIME that the coup made her realize her own double standards. A 39-year-old transgender advocate from the Karen ethnic minority, she says that although she knew what happened to the Rohingya was a “grave violation of human rights” she failed to stand up for them, despite her activism in other areas.
“Without international community strong condemnation and support, I think we will all end up like Rohingya people,” she says.
Rohingya activists seek support among Burmese
In turn, the Rohingya are hoping that standing in solidarity with the people of Myanmar will help end discrimination against them and bolster their fight for justice.
“We are trying to build solidarity with the Burmese people,” says Nay San Lwin. “Most of the Rohingya activists are supporting the movement in Myanmar.”
Not just activists. Muhammad Dullah fled the country in Aug. 2017 and now lives in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The 24-year-old Rohingya has started posting anti-coup messages on his Twitter account.
“Rohingya stand with the people of Myanmar,” said one tweet, accompanied by photos of a makeshift signs reading “Protesting against military coup from the Bangladesh Rohingya Refugee camp” and “Military coup” with a large X drawn through it.
“I think [Burmese] may support and stand by us after seeing our solidarity with them,” Dullah tells TIME.