By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Wai Wai Nu is a born fighter. Although the odds are stacked against her, she refuses to give up. As a human rights activist living in Myanmar, she is driven by a powerful sense of justice and a passion for helping others. And despite her nation’s current crisis, she remains hopeful that she can help bring an end to the horrible repression taking place and move the country forward to a new era of peace.
Wai Wai Nu is a member of one of the most persecuted minorities in world: the Rohingya people of Myanmar. While most people living outside of Myanmar have never heard of the Rohingya, they are currently at the center of a devastating humanitarian crisis The Rohingya are a small ethnic minority living in the western part of Myanmar, in an area known as Rakhine. They have been singled out for discrimination by Myanmar’s military government for more than 50 years, mostly because of religious reasons. (The Rohingya are mostly Muslim, in a country that is predominantly Buddhist.) Since the 1970s, they have been the targets of numerous military “crackdowns,” including 4 brutal ones in 1978, 1991, 2012, and 2015.
Then, in October 2016, a new attack began that has been the most destructive to date. This new crackdown, which is still taking place today, has resulted in thousands of arrests and hundreds of government-sponsored murders. In addition, there have been widespread reports of gang rapes, torture, looting, and even infanticide. The atrocities have become so widespread and systematic, many are referring to the situation as a genocide and as “ethnic cleansing.” As a result, more than 600,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes in Myanmar and are now living as refugees in Bangladesh and other neighboring countries. The Myanmar government says the latest crackdown is in response to recent Rohingya attacks against military and police posts. At this point, the incident is still being investigated.
Wai Wai Nu is not just fighting against these crackdowns, she was also the victim of one. In 2005, she was arrested by the military government (along with the rest of her family) and thrown into prison for more than 7 years. Considered to be a “political prisoner,” Nu was finally released in 2015.
Although she was happy to finally gain her freedom, she also merged from the experience with a new sense of determination to do something about the atrocities being carried out against her people. She has since become a leading advocate for human rights in her country and a powerful voice for the Rohingya people. She has also founded two non-government organizations to promote peace and to offer legal advice and representation to persecuted women. Her inspiring work has gained her international recognition and support from the United Nations.
LAW SCHOOL INTERRUPTED
Wai Wai Nu was born in 1987 in Buthidaung, a town in the Rakhine section of Myanmar (previously known as Burma). Although her early childhood was relatively quiet, things began to change in 1990, when her father ran for political office. Her father, Kyaw Min Nu, was a pro-labor/pro-democracy candidate who condemned the military government and promoted greater protections for workers. Although he won the election and earned a seat in parliament, his victory was mostly ignored by the military regime. In fact, Nu’s family suddenly became the target of a major harassment campaign. Over time, conditions became intolerable, and Wai Wai Nu and her family were forced to move, eventually relocating to Yangon, the nation’s capital (at the time).
In Yangon, Nu continued her schooling and graduated rom secondary school. As a result of her family’s experiences with discrimination, she had her heart set on studying law. “Ever since I was young, I wanted to understand law to make sense of the injustices that were occurring in the country,” she recalled. In 2003, at the age of 16, she was accepted to Yangon East University and began studying law.
However, her world would soon be turned upside down. In 2005, her father was arrested and charged with state security and immigration violations. Two months later, Nu and the rest of her family were also arrested and sent to the infamous Insein Prison, simply because they were family and considered guilty by association. Nu spent the next seven years as a political prisoner in one of the most notorious prisons in Asia.
LIFE IN PRISON
When Nu and her family were taken into custody, along with most of their relatives, they were put on trial behind closed doors, hidden from public scrutiny. They were given no legal representation, and were swiftly convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Since Nu’s father was the primary target, he received a separate sentence of 47 years. Since he was 60 years old at the time, it was essentially a life sentence for him. For Wai Wai Nu, it was a terrifying, confusing, and completely overwhelming experience.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on? How can I be here without committing a crime?’ I couldn’t accept that reality for some time,” she said.
Although Nu was shocked and saddened by what was happening to her family, it was – unfortunately – common practice for Rohingya Muslims to be treated this way in Myanmar. While the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for several centuries, many Myanmar civilians view them as immigrants. In recent decades, local tensions have grown worse, leading to increasing conflict and sometimes violence. Rather than quell the fighting, the Myanmar government used these conflicts to further alienate and persecute the Rohingya. Government officials routinely stirred up ethnic hatred and encouraged discriminatory practices. And with each “crackdown” initiated by the government, officials justified their policies by blaming local Rohingya groups that had begun pushing for independence, claiming they had attacked government outposts or were initiating the violence in local communities.
While Nu was held at Insein prison, she met numerous women and young girls (some younger than her) who had been arrested for drug use or prostitution, activities they engaged in due to extreme poverty. Economically ostracized by their communities, these when had few options available to them for making money. And the difficult of their situation caused many to turn to drugs as a form of escape. After talking to these women, Nu began to realize just how tough life was for the Rohingya – but especially for Rohingya women living in Myanmar. “They had to do these jobs because there is no other choice,” said Nu. “Is it their fault they don’t have opportunities?”
At the same time, many of the other women she met in prison had committed no crime whatsoever. They had simply been arrested because of their political opposition to the Myanmar government. Attending the wrong rally or saying the wrong thing in public could land you in prison for years.
“I had thought only criminals go to prison, but I met so many women there who never committed a crime. I thought, ‘When I get out, I’m going to fix it.’ I had no idea how, but I knew I had to try.” – Wai Wai Nu
After seven long years in the harsh, unforgiving prison, Nu and her family – including her father – were finally released thanks to a change in power. Thein Sein, a retired army general and the country’s Prime Minister from 2007 to 2011, ran for office and won, becoming Myanmar’s eighth president. His moderate and reformist views helped to reshape government policy, and many political prisoners under his watch were released. Although this was a new beginning for Wai Wai Nu, things did not improve much for the country as a whole. And for the Rohingya in general, the situation has only gotten worse over time.
PROMOTING PEACE AND EQUALITY
Upon her release in 2012, at the age of 25, Wai Wai Nu quickly returned to Yangon East University to continue her education. After her experiences in prison, she was more motivated than ever to attain her law degree, so she could help those who needed protection from persecution. After she acquired her degree and graduated, she enrolled in a one year political education program run by the British Council, and attended other political training courses. Around this time, however, ethnic tension between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya was increasing again, leading to violent clashes that left more than 150,000 people homeless – mostly the Rohingya.
Nu, however, acted swiftly to respond to this disturbing trend by creating and acting as director of the “Women’s Peace Network Arakan,” a non-government organization (NGO) that promotes better understanding between the Rohingya and other people living in the Rakhine area. The organization acts both locally and internationally, engaging people at all levels while trying to create a peaceful and secure environment for everyone.
Shortly after creating the “Women’s Peace Network – Arakan” NGO, Nu co-founded another organization called “Justice for Women,” a network of women lawyers providing legal aid to Myanmar women. Their primary goal is to empower women through legal counsel and by educating them about human rights. The organization organizes workshops throughout the Rakhine region to educate young women about how to combat abuses that are appallingly common in Myanmar, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. From Nu’s perspective, this is more than an act of justice, it is an investment in the future of her country.
In addition to these organizations, Nu launched an online project in 2015 called the #My Friend campaign. Its main objective is to oppose hate speech by encouraging social media users to snap and share selfies of themselves interacting with friends of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. The idea was to promote diversity and show that people of different backgrounds can form close personal relatiionships. The initiative became so popular that it went globally viral and continues to be popular to this day.
FOLLOWING THE PATH
In 1982, not long after the military dictatorship consolidated its power, officials revoked the citizenship of all Rohingya people, essentially making them a “stateless” ethnic group. At the same time, the government imposed harsh restrictions on travel and blocked Rohingya people from access to certain jobs and educational opportunities. Today, the government and ordinary Myanmar civilians refer to the minority Rohingya as Bengalis, implying they are illegal immigrants from the neighboring country of Bangladesh.
“The Rohingya used to lead dignified, respectful lives,” says Nu. “They were not always stateless. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were citizens.” But the situation has changed dramatically in recent decades, getting especially severe since 2015.
Even after President Sein promised to bring political and social reform to the country, not very much has really changed, certainly not for Nu and her people. The government still limits their freedoms and movement, and many of them feel frustrated and a sense of hopelessness. During the devastating floods of 2015, the government even restricted international aid – food and medicine – that was destined for the Rohingya people, leaving them to struggle and survive on their own.
More recently, in October 2017, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report that stated:
“Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, targeting their houses, fields, food-stocks, crops, livestock and even trees, to render the possibility of the Rohingya returning to normal lives and livelihoods in the future in northern Rakhine almost impossible.”
In some communities, officials documented brutal attacks perpetrated by government security forces – even against young children. As one UN official noted: “The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her.” Some of the atrocities reported have been beyond comprehension.
While these reports are stunningly disturbing, Nu refuses to let them break her spirit. Instead, she feels more determined than ever to fight for a safer, more just, and more equitable future for the Rohingya – one rooted in law and legal process. Recently, she began offering a range of activities to help empower local Rohingya women, including legal education seminars, activist training programs, and non-violent peace-building exercises. Her work and advocacy have put her in the global spotlight, and she was selected as one of the BBC’s 100 Top Women of 2014, and one of Foreign Policy’s 100 World Thinkers in 2015.
In spite of the daily challenges she faces, Nu remains hopeful that she will one day achieve her dream: democracy in Myanmar, with equal rights for all.
“I was arrested when I was 18 years old because my father was a Member of Parliament for the political opposition in Burma,” she says. “Eventually my entire family was arrested. I spent 7 years in prison until I was released in 2012. Since I was a kid I have seen and lived a lot of injustice—I understand how it feels, the challenges faced by women and the poor people in my country. I realized the political system in Burma doesn’t benefit all of us, and since then I have tried to change the system to better the situation for women.”
Even with the devastating humanitarian crisis underway right now, Wai Wai Nu refuses to surrender to despair and hate. Instead, she is encouraged by the rising global demand for justice, which seems to be growing stronger each day. Several nations, such as England, France, Nigeria, and Malaysia, have already condemned the Myanmar government for what they see as “ethnic cleansing.” The UN has also issued a strong denunciation, accusing the Myanmar military of committing “crimes against humanity,” and urging international action.
Wai Wai Nu sees hope in these condemnations and remains optimistic that things can work out in the long run if enough pressure is placed on the Myanmar government to end the persecution and change their policies. In the end, her hope stems from a strong belief in the basic goodness of humanity. And she believes that appeals to human decency can eventually have an impact.
“We must see that all human beings are the same,” she says. “We have to take care of each other to build a beautiful world.”