This article was written by Virginia Vigliar and Magdalena Mach
When she was 18 years old, Wai Wai Nu, her mother, her sister and one of her brothers heard a loud bang on the door in the middle of the night. 15 security forces arrested them and took them to a high-security prison in Myanmar’s capital, Rangoon. They were sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Their crime was being related to her father, an elected Parliament member aligned with the opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi.
She tells her story at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference on human rights held in Oslo, Norway.
Nu is from a family of the Rohingya minority, which has been at the centre of media attention for the atrocities they are suffering at the hands of the Myanmar military.
According to Nu, the Rohingya were particularly marginalized through a system, that has been sparking conflict within the Burmese society through divide and rule during the military dictatorship.
Since October 2016, the situation has deteriorated for the Rohingya. Many NGOs have reported crimes against humanity.
“Of course, I feel pain when I see my people being prosecuted, being killed, raped. It’s really harmful,”
When asked about this, Wai Wai is keen to put things straight “I mean my childhood was not very different from others because I grew up in Rangoon (Myanmar’s capital)”. Nu is a practical young lady, who is keen to send an important message: to solve the ethnic problem in Myanmar it is important to look at the root causes. These, according to her are in education and culture. “It is not just about the Rohingya” she says when asked how she reacts to the horrific treatment of her people.
“Of course, I feel pain when I see my people being prosecuted, being killed, raped. It’s really harmful,” she says, but wants to make clear that we must look at the root causes of ethnic violence in Myanmar in order to solve them.
Diversity in Myanmar
Myanmar is a country containing officially 135 major ethnic groups and more than a hundred spoken languages.
According to New York Times, since the rise of Buddhist nationalism, discrimination of minorities in Burma has increased on all levels. And it concerns all ethnic minority groups, says Amnesty International.
It is obvious even in daily life. Nu tells us that if you work in institutions, like schools, “you can realize that if you are Muslim, or if you look like bit Indian, you know, then you will face many kinds of discriminations”.
Nu talks about her experience as a Rohingya in Myanmar as a relatively easy one. “My complexion is not very different from other Burmese”, she explains, “so I don’t have that much of personal level discrimination, but you know, many others in my country [do]”.
Politicized in Prison
During her interview with WIB, Nu recounted her time in jail, describing it as a fundamental in shaping her career and life mission. “I (was) been talking to many people from different ethnicities. And I realized they are suffering, and I feel that we share the same values and the same difficulties”. Prison showed her that humans cannot be separated by race or ethnicity, “their difficulties are my difficulties. I belong to them, and they belong to me as a human being, as women, as people of the country.”
The young activist seems to have been able to recognize the immense diversity of her country with the knowledge that everyone, no matter their ethnicity, can face fierce discrimination on all levels.
Hearing stories of people in jail made her realize that this was, in fact, a shared experience by many, not just the minority she herself is part of.
“Their difficulties are my difficulties. I belong to them, and they belong to me as a human being, as women, as people of the country.”
When Nu was released after 7 years, she emerged as a fierce activist full of hope to bring about change in her country. She earned a law degree and founded two NGOs: Women’s Peace Network – Arakan, founded in 2012 and Justice For Women, through which she aims to empower Myanmar’s youth and women through legal counsel, rights and peace education.
A power woman inspiring Burmese youth
Nu says that experience in prison made her realise one fundamental thing: that ethnic tensions in Burma are caused by the fact that the idea of being Burmese has not been defined yet. “It’s about (an) institutional problem, a system problem.” “So, it’s a lack of understanding of what democracy is, and people don’t have a vision, you know, of where we want to go, and where does Burmese mean, what does Burma mean?” she asks.
“What I’m trying to do is trying to define what is Burma, and what is Burmese people,” she says.
With the Women’s Peace Network, she explains, her mission is to build peace and mutual understanding between Burma’s different ethnicities and to advocate for the rights of marginalized women, especially in the Burmese region of Arakan.
“What I’m trying to do is trying to define what is Burma, and what is Burmese people”
Practicing inclusion and critical thinking
The organization’s focus lies on empowering youth and women through legal education, awareness raising, and peace-building, she told WIB.
In the civic education programs with Burmese youth, she works to broaden the horizon of these kids, and teach the meaning of tolerance, inclusivity, democracy, and human rights.
“The young people who joined our programs”, she says, “have changed and have become successful”. “The participants from different backgrounds”, she continues, “work together and build organizations, and carry out this type of work, and I like that.” She tells WIB she enjoys seeing her work continue through her students.
Nu hopes to build a tolerant and activist young generation of leaders, through which change can come about.
Empowering Youth in Myanmar
One success story Nu shared with us was the story of a young man whose parents were very “nationalist and racist”, a peculiar situation as they belonged to different ethnic groups. His father is a Rakhine and his mother a Buddhist extremist, she explained.
The boy joined the program despite his parents’ disapproval. Nu says that the programme helped him think for himself, he went on to study liberal arts and law at university afterwards, and is now contributing to promoting equality, and raising awareness on discrimination of minorities in Myanmar.
Envisioning a better future
Wai Wai Nu is now attending an MA in International Law at UC Berkeley, California, one of the most prestigious schools in the world.
Her studies will focus on constitutional law, she says, in order to be able to push for more democratic constitutions in the future. She will also continue to be engaged with the Women’s Peace Network during her studies and will return to continue her inspiring work in Myanmar.