Activist speaks about experience with political turmoil

By Rae Yen Tan

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Internationally recognized human rights activist Wai Wai Nu spoke to UK students Thursday night about her experiences witnessing political persecution and personal hardship.

She told stories of the Rohingya community’s persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government. As Myanmar is mostly Buddhist, the Rohingya people endured hardship due to their Muslim beliefs.

Nu is no stranger to injustice; she herself was jailed with her family because of her father’s political involvement in democratization.

“I was one of the youngest prisoners, and it was difficult to survive and adapt to the situation,” Nu said. “(Burmese prison) is not what you have in the U.S. It’s one of the most notorious prisons in the world.”

During her seven years served, Nu saw many young female political prisoners, who were jailed because of the judicial and economic systems. After her experience, she dedicated her life to changing the system.

“I believe in humanity. I believe all humans are the same, in human dignity and rights,” Nu said. “So that knowledge makes me empowered to fight against injustice and human right violations.  We have responsibility to fight against injustice to protect injustice in our environment. That gives me major strength to move forward.”

Finally, Nu said, there is responsibility for people to take care of their society, to have society change, and to have peace in society.

Since the 1990s, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the Myanmar government. They were stripped of their citizenship and were instead given temporary registration cards, and had restrictions on movement, education and marriage.

Nu said that without paying a local authority, and payment, Rohingya people cannot marry and those who violated these rules could serve five years in prison and face fines. Poor women who could not pay would have to find other channels to find a way to get by, said Nu.  Often, these women fall victim to trafficking.

In 2010, Burma seemingly started to transition into a more democratic setting. After her release in 2012, Nu saw some changes in Rangoon — there were more buildings and cars and people were moving freely — but she knew it was only an “outfit change.” Despite this, Nu said she believed the government “might have some will to change the country.”

Soon after, Nu heard the living situation had worsened in Myanmar’s ethnic areas and states, particularly the Rakhine state. The violence in Burma escalated ­— approximately 150,000 people were forced to relocate in the Rakhine State.

“In this democracy the minorities are facing tremendous difficulty,” Nu said.

According to Nu, in upcoming elections, almost all Rohingya candidates are rejected. She said she strongly believes elections must be free, fair and all-inclusive and aid from other countries is a crucial step towards creating a more democratic Myanmar.

“Our people are dying and starving in the camps. We can’t wait until elections,” Nu said. “We need to take action immediately. It can only happen on the initiation of the U.S.”

Commitment from every country’s leader as well as support from countries like the U.S is key to moving forward to “genuine democracy to make sure everyone’s rights are protected,” Nu said. “Lack of protection of rights is shameful for any democracy reporter. This should be addressed immediately.”

“These elections are kind of being supported by country like the U.S.,” Nu said. “We haven’t seen any action by the international community to solve the issue. After violence, thousands have already fled and were refugees in Thailand, Malaysia, and many other countries.”

Last July for Ramadan, Nu was a special guest at a dinner with President Barack Obama. After Obama said he believed the government’s policy towards Myanmar was a success story, she told him that the policy was not.

“Situations are deteriorating U.S policy should be revised. We understand the engagement with the U.S. government and Burma, we understand diplomacy,” Nu said. “But the U.S. policy should be revised. I’m not saying you have to make sanctions at all, but we should have some targeted sanctions.”

In her journey to bring true democracy to the Rakhine state, Nu founded the Women Peace Network-Arakan. Their work centers around creating liberal democracy. The network has several programs, which exist to counter racism, hate speech and crime. A strongly upheld belief of the organization is “Friendship has no boundaries.”