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Democracy Talks: A Conversation with Wai Wai Nu

Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya activist and 2015 Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Scholar, describes the challenges to democracy and human rights in Burma, her home country.

Article by Wai Wai Nu April 28, 2020 //   15 minute read

Wai Wai Nu was imprisoned in Burma in 2005 as an 18-year old college student, along with her mother, sister, and father, who had been active in a democracy movement. Now a Columbia University student, she is an activist for democracy, freedom, and human rights in her home country, which is also known as Myanmar.

As an example of her activism, the 2015 Liberty and Leadership Scholar advocates against the Burmese government’s persecution of her fellow Rohingya Muslims. Since 2017, over 730,000 members of the stateless group have avoided military atrocities by fleeing to Bangladesh, where many live in the world’s largest, most densely-populated refugee camp.

The Time Magazine Next Generation Leader spoke with the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, Jieun Pyun, and Bill McKenzie about her work, the reasons for her commitment to democracy and human rights, and the challenges that stand in the way of achieving them in her country.

If you could, start with your story. Tell us why and when you were imprisoned.

I was imprisoned in 2005, when I was 18-years old and a college student. My country was under a military dictatorship, and my father was a political activist. He was elected to Parliament in 1990, and later became a political ally to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in a democracy movement.

My father was targeted, and they came to arrest him in March 2005. They took him away and we had no information about him. Two months later, the rest of my family and I were arrested. We did not expect that. We thought his arrest was politically motivated, and that they only wanted him. We were terrified when he was arrested, but we didn’t expect to be arrested, too.

We came to realize that it was not just about his political activism. It also was because of our ethnic identity in Myanmar. We are Rohingya Muslims, so they targeted us for that as well. The military regime cracked down on politicians as individuals, but they also targeted some more than others based on their backgrounds. In our case, it was about being Rohingya. They basically tried to cut down the whole family and demoralize my father.

The military regime cracked down on politicians as individuals, but they also targeted some more than others based on their backgrounds. In our case, it was about being Rohingya. They basically tried to cut down the whole family and demoralize my father.

Were you all together or did they separate you?

For three years, females were with females and males were with males. But for about a year and a half, we were in the same prison. Then, they transferred my father to another prison which was very far away. We had no connection with him for two years. That was the most difficult part of my life. I was very close to my dad and was worried about him because he was 65 and his prison sentence was for 47 years. I thought I would never see him.

What was it like being in prison? Were you in a special section for political prisoners or were you mixed with common criminals?

We were mixed with common criminals and other political prisoners. My father was in a separate cell until his transfer. He essentially was in solitary confinement, but we were mixed with other criminals.

At first, it was not easy to engage with people from very different backgrounds or attitudes. Later on, it got better. It helped me learn to cope and understand life of people in Myanmar.

What was it like to be a Rohingya in prison?

We told other prisoners we were Rohingya, but it wasn’t a problem because most of them didn’t know about the Rohingya. The hate and prejudice weren’t there. There was a bit of anti-Muslim sentiment, but we were respected and loved by many prisoners because we were political prisoners. My sister and I were young, and everyone loved our mom. Other prisoners took care of us.

Later on, I sometimes stood up for the other prisoners, such as prostitutes. We fought for own rights as political prisoners, such as for health care and food that was a bit better than ordinary prisoner food, according to the prison manual. We fought against the colonial standards of three-to-five cups of water to use in a shower and a small portion of rice to eat. We combated these systems, which were basically dismantled. As a result, we were well known and faced less discrimination.

How are you now advocating for human rights and the rule of law?

It was difficult as a young girl to realize that you are a prisoner. I had so much pain and grief. Then, I realized it was the system. The system put me in prison, so I became dedicated to fix an authoritative, corrupt system.

It was difficult as a young girl to realize that you are a prisoner. I had so much pain and grief. Then, I realized we have to fix the system. The system put me in prison, so I became dedicated to fix an authoritative, corrupt system.

When I was released from jail after seven years, I first started and got involved with a political youth movement. Then prejudice against Muslims and violence against Rohingya broke out in Rahkine state, where most Rohingya live. I then launched the Women’s Peace Network to give others a voice as other voices were coming out on social media and a narrative began against Rohingya.

We are now focusing on civic empowerment so that we can contribute to the democratic transformation and build youth leaders. We also are working on peace-building capacity by forming relationships and mutual understanding among different groups.

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The other part of my work is about advocacy and documenting human rights abuses so we can change the policies of the Burmese government against Rohingya and other minorities. We want peace, freedom, human rights, and democracy. We are working for those in both a top-down and bottom-up way. Bottom up means I believe that building our society and empowering communities with civics and political knowledge is critical.

We want peace, freedom, human rights, and democracy. We are working for those in both a top-down and bottom-up way. Bottom up means building and empowering communities with political knowledge.

What do you see as the greatest impediment to human rights and rule of law in your country?

The leadership of the country. When we have no principled and moral leadership, it is difficult to talk about human rights and democracy. The space is shrinking because the leaders with the most power are not promoting them.

When we have no principled and moral leadership, it is difficult to talk about human rights and democracy. The space is shrinking because the leaders with the most power are not promoting these.

But the greatest impediment is the mindset of the society and of the leaders themselves. We won’t be able to change anything unless we change the mindset that it is okay to discriminate against or hate or kill a certain group. Some prominent Buddhist monks preach to the people that it is okay to kill the enemy. Buddha did not necessarily teach that.

Rohingya issues now have come to the International Court of Justice, which is an idea for which you advocated. So, what is the next step for you as an advocate for the Rohingya community?

My goal for my country is to have a democracy, where all people can enjoy freedom, human rights, and peace.

When I started my activism, there weren’t any women in the field. It was challenging for me to take a leadership role or even be out there. Some in the community, or some hardline male activists, see us and our nonviolent approach as soft and ineffective. And some who have prejudice against the Rohingya see me as a threat to the nation and critical of the government. But I believe in engaging people through nonviolence and standing up against injustice. This is a people’s approach.

I also engage with the international community and different policymakers, including at the United Nations. Sometimes it’s really frustrating when you see the response from the international community, especially from governments and their leaders, including in the U.S. government. The response has been slow, so we have lost many lives during the so-called “clearance operations” by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya population. Millions of people are struggling. If there were quicker action, we wouldn’t see this situation.

This takes time, which can be difficult to tolerate. However, you have to be patient and find ways to be more effective and more active. The international justice system might not be able to bring ultimate justice for the Rohingya, but my hope is it might open the door for the Rohingya and other oppressed minorities in the country.

Talk about Burma’s transition to democracy overall. We are several years into it now. Have you been happy with the progress or disappointed?

When we were released from jail in 2012 under a presidential amnesty, we were hopeful about the transition to democracy. But I am discouraged and disappointed about the way things are going with the violence against the Rohingya, the peace process not moving forward, and the attitude of the previous government and the current government toward democratic practices.

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Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic democratic leader, is not even listening. It is disappointing that the leaders are not even abiding by or promoting democratic practices or principles. The military has used the transition to democracy as a means to maintain power. And the government has used democracy and human rights to gain power again. When they were in power in before, they didn’t care about human rights.

When you become a leader and start preaching about democracy and human rights, you need consistency and integrity. To become a better leader, you need integrity and consistency in your values and principles. And when you become a politician, you can’t become an enemy of human rights and democracy. You have to promote it and be accountable for what you have said.

Are you optimistic for change through the election this year? Or do you think it’s going to be much of the same after the election?

I am not optimistic. The National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military have excluded Muslim members from the party and as candidates. The military has disenfranchised the Rohingya. And no leader has talked about this issue.

We have heard that in areas affected by conflict there won’t be elections. That means the NLD and the military are trying to manipulate the election so they can gain more seats in Parliament and disenfranchise minority populations.

If they are willing to change their policies and we had free and fair elections, I could be optimistic. But I am not optimistic now. And international organizations and institutions that support Myanmar elections should take a careful approach and responsible tone in putting out statements. Some institutions announced they had free and fair elections last time. But that doesn’t help for a meaningful transition to democracy.

Does the United States’ voice matter in a place like Myanmar?

It is past time for the United States to speak up. It is time to take action. The United States has failed to take action since 2012, and we have been consistently requesting and arguing that you need to take action against and hold accountable the perpetrators of this serious crime. The current administration announced that they are going to take action, but we haven’t seen any substantive action apart from sanctions against a few top generals.

It is past time for the United States to speak up. It is time to take action. The United States has failed to take action since 2012, and we have been consistently requesting and arguing that you need to take action against and hold accountable the perpetrators of this serious crime.

What actions would you advocate?

The United States should be taking a leadership role in promoting democracy and human rights in Myanmar, like during President [George W.] Bush’s administration. The United States should be leading the actions against the Burmese perpetrators and building a multinational cooperative campaign for things like economic sanctions. A coalition would put pressure on the Burmese government. The U.S. has done that in the past. But there have been a few signs that the United States was not going to take action, and the perpetrators felt they could continue to commit atrocious crimes with impunity.

There has been a pro-engagement lobby within the U.S. government and outside of it that wanted to promote economic development. We said that we are not against economic development. You can do economic development without necessarily promoting military business. But the economy is run by military businesses, so empowering them would create more inequality between rich and poor and strengthen military power.

And, as part of the international community, you cannot promote the businesses of those perpetuating genocide and international crimes. [Editor’s Note: Many of the largest and most important Burmese corporations are owned by current or former members of the armed forces.] Policymakers should consider that. Over the last several years, there was a lot of excitement about engaging the government and celebrating its success. It is clear that was the wrong strategy. It encouraged the military to continue to carry on the genocide against the Rohingya.

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