Former Political Prisoner Wai Wai Nu on Discrimination, the Rohingya People, and the Future of Myanmar

Cameron Conaway with Wai Wai Nu – WNN Interviews

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Photo by Ko Aung Win Htut

(WNN) Myanmar, SOUTHEAST ASIA – Wai Wai Nu didn’t know she was being arrested when she was being arrested. She was an 18-year-old studying law, and in her mind she thought authorities were taking her, her mom, and her sister to a private place where authorities could question them about the activities of her father Kyaw Min, who they had taken to jail two months prior.

It was 2005, a full 15 years since the 1990 elections when her father was elected to be a member of parliament. The results of those elections, successfully led by Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy, were ignored by the military that ruled Myanmar. Shortly thereafter, Min faced harassment so fierce it forced him to move his family from their home in Western Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Yangon, the former capital and the country’s largest city.

During those first days at Insein Prison, a facility notorious for repressing political dissidents and for its terrible conditions, Wai Wai was filled with equal parts confusion and hope. Because she knew her family hadn’t committed any crimes, there was a constant belief that what was right and just would prevail. That belief began to waver as days became weeks and weeks became months, and her family’s appeals were rejected at every stage.

Seven years. That’s how long Wai Wai Nu spent in prison. At just 29-years-old, this amounts to nearly a quarter of her life.

Her crime? Her and her family are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority in a country with many leaders who wield a military-backed, anti-Muslim Theravada Buddhism perhaps best described as a form of ethno-religious nationalism.

Now often referred to as the most persecuted people on Earth, the Rohingya are denied citizenship and the government refuses to acknowledge them as an ethnic minority. “How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group,” state spokesman Win Myaing told Reuters in 2013.

The harsh persecution has only intensified, and on 1 May 2015 staff from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Centre for the Prevention of Genocide released a report in which they stated, “…so many preconditions for genocide are already in place. With a recent history of mass atrocities and within a pervasive climate of hatred and fear, the Rohingya may once again become the target of mass atrocities, including genocide.”

Just a few weeks later, in an Op-Ed for Newsweek, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu referred to the violence committed against them as a “slow genocide.”

Cameron Conaway (CC): At 29-years-old, you’ve spent a quarter of your life behind bars. You’ve referred to this 7-year-period in Insein Prison as your university about life.” Can you take us there to your arrest and first day of incarceration, to how your emotions and mindset changed throughout those seven years?

Wai Wai Nu (WWN): First of all I understood that I was put in jail without doing any crime. I realized there was an injustice. When I was in there I just had this idea that people who were put in jail and punished did something bad, that they were criminals. But our family… none of us had ever engaged with any criminals in the past. We never even engaged in gambling or drinking. When we were sentenced to a long-term imprisonment, it was just a crazy thing for me to try to understand. No matter how hard I tried to use my mind, I couldn’t make sense of it. I spent so much time wondering, “What did I do wrong?” I questioned myself so much and couldn’t find any answers. But what I could understand was that this was an injustice, that this was what oppression and injustice felt like.

Then my mindset changed, and instead of questioning myself I started to question the situation itself by asking, “Why should I accept this oppression?” This is when I saw that there were so many other people, just like me, in the prison. The “university about life” came because I learned so much from these people. They were also imprisoned without trial or without a fair trial, or simply because they didn’t have money. I realized that this shouldn’t be happening in my country, that people’s basic human rights should be protected, that all people should be treated with respect and dignity. The only way I could overcome this was by accepting the reality and overcoming those challenges with resilience.

CC: Did you have periods of time when you felt broken or discouraged? How did you find your spirit and hope to keep pushing forward?

WWN: For at least two years I just felt so desperate, so depressed. I always kept close this idea that I would be released very soon. And I had all kinds of crazy ideas in my mind about what I would do when I was released… I imagined just going outside and flying. But eventually I realized that I wouldn’t be released soon, and that these ideas likely would not happen. This is when I told myself, “I might be here for a very long time or a very short time, but I have to survive here.” For me this meant figuring out how to stay here, how to understand what was going on inside myself so that I could stay here for as long as it took.

CC: What was your day-to-day life like on the inside?

WWN: I was with many other women in there. Some were political prisoners, some were prostitutes, some were gamblers, drug dealers, traffickers and other kinds of criminals. I was there with all different kinds of people. My day-to-day was talking with these people, reading books and eventually I started teaching a few women English. I just wanted to listen to their stories and share whatever knowledge I had. Because I was there for so many years I had the opportunity to hear so many stories of injustice, so many human stories. This helped me learn about economic situations, social problems, religious thought… all coming from human suffering. Their stories helped me stay hopeful, and I knew I needed to establish my life in the prison.

CC: The Rohingya people are often described as the most world’s most persecuted minority. Heartbreaking images of their suffering serve as the lead-in photo to articles about their plight. Can you can give us a glimpse into how discrimination is embedded into policy, and therefore how policy is cruelly impacting their everyday lives?

WWN: There is so much research and publications and evidence that this is systematic persecution through policy. In my parent’s generation, this kind of discrimination was so much less. Muslims and Buddhists and Christians were all more or less the same status as citizens of Myanmar. There was of course some discrimination and struggle among the top leaders, but in society people were for the most part equal. People were not, not to this extent, treated as criminals because of their religion. But now, if you are Muslim, you are treated like an enemy or like a criminal. This kind of discrimination for us has seen big changes in the past 30 years. And it’s happening institutionally. It’s in the schools, in the police office, in the court system, in the hospital, in the market, at the immigration office, in the military. It’s everywhere. This kind of discrimination has been building for years, directed by higher authorities… but nobody can seem to point to who many of these authorities are. There are laws that discriminate against religious and ethnic minorities here, and those laws have been made institutional. These are the biggest problems right now.

CC: Much of your work as an activist, most obviously including your founding of the Women Peace Network – Arakan, has to do with advocating for the rights of women in Myanmar. When the international community highlights discrimination in Myanmar, it’s typically through the lens of race and religion. Can you describe the challenges women face in your country, and how you see those challenges being resolved?

WWN: There is so much discrimination against women here, layers of discrimination against them. What we’re trying to do at Women Peace Network – Arakan is to empower young people about women’s rights, human rights, democracy. We want to empower people with political knowledge, so they can really be active citizens and help serve this society. We bring people from different different religions and diverse backgrounds to create an environment where they can become friendly, build understanding, and then continue working together.

Women’s rights education is a big part of what we do. Women must know they have access to justice. I make sure to have women and men together for this, because I believe that while women must respond to the discrimination against them, we must bring the majority or dominant population in as well so that they can understand the issues. We can’t stay separate and have this approach like, “Okay, you do your job and I’ll do my job.” In the end we have to work together if these issues of discrimination are to be resolved. We strive to have a mixed gender and racial balance to help make this happen.

We offer many kinds of trainings. This also includes English language training. Every weekend we have trainings on various topics, and every three months we have trainings on civic education, human rights issues, peace education, and conflict transformation. But the mission is to encourage women to join the program.

CC: Are your trainings open to the public? How do you promote the trainings, and do you feel scared at all to advertise your work as an activist considering what has happened to you in the past?

WWN: It’s open to the public, but we primarily promote through our network of alumni and vocational trainings. We have free English language trainings, and through these we mention some of our other offerings. We’re also using many kinds of social media.

About being afraid… I don’t feel afraid because I am not doing anything wrong. I’m still not breaking any laws. But, if the officials don’t like my activities to promote tolerance, human rights, democracy and peace, they may put me in jail. They have the authority to put me in jail, but for me I feel secure in what I’m doing, I believe in it, and I’m not guilty of anything.

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CC: It can often seem that many individuals and organizations advocating for better conditions for the Rohingya are doing so as relative outsiders (i.e., they are not Rohingya and they are not primarily based in Myanmar). Do the Rohingya have any notable internal social movements advocating on behalf of their human rights? What progress is being made on this front, and what hurdles must still be overcome?

WWN: There are some organizations among the community who are trying to give voice to these issues. And I think even if they are doing small work it really does matter a lot. So right now it’s difficult to say how much this is impacting the situation, but the need is there, people are trying, and we really need help from everyone.

CC: In speaking to many Rakhine Buddhists, especially those who have been relocated, there is a near-universal sense of hatred toward the Rohingya. Many I spoke to said they believe Rohingya must remain segregated and that there is no way to live together peacefully. How do you see reconciliation taking root when there is such a divide and seeming lack of willingness to try?

WWN: I really believe if there is no structured discrimination, if there is rule of law, and this law does not have discriminatory practices built into it, the reconciliation among the community will not be a major challenge. Things will eventually work themselves out in this regard. The most important thing is the willingness of the authorities to remove discriminatory practices and policies. Then, if they’re able to actively engage in the communities and encourage them toward trust-building and development, I believe the people will make it happen. It will take a combination of policy change and community leadership.

CC: Have you met any Rakhine Buddhists who are speaking out in favor of rights for the Rohingya?

WWN: I believe there are many, but it’s difficult to say who they are. I have so many friends who share my beliefs. Maybe others feel pressured by their community to not share such thoughts.

CC: On the ground in Myanmar, you are frequently referred to as a hero. It seems you’ve found a way to advocate on behalf of your people in ways that many others have wanted to but haven’t been able to do. What sets you apart from other activists, and how do you sustain your drive for social change when it so frequently seems the odds are stacked against you?

WWN: The first thing is to have commitment, to try to empower yourself, and to try to understand the conditions. Of course confidence building is very important, especially as the minority. We need to think from the perspective of our other people, to try to think why they are doing this. Then we can have more thought on how to create better solutions. There are lots of ways to do this, but it can’t happen if we don’t work to understand others, to understand their fears. This persecution and discrimination… behind it all is some sort of fear. If we can keep working to understand that on individual and structural levels I think progress can be made.

CC: What discrepancies, miscommunications, misperceptions, if any, exist between state officials in Rakhine and the central government when handling the Rohingya issues? With your background in law do you see a disconnect between state and central?

WWN: Yes, there is definitely a disconnect. But it’s particularly about resources and power. When it comes to issues of the Rohingya, the state and central are united. They are the same when it comes to this.

CC: As the National League for Democracy comes into office this April, what changes would you like to see them make right off the bat? Some have scrutinized the NLD’s relative silence on behalf of your people. Are you hopeful that they will have the willingness and capacity to help advocate for the kind of peaceful Myanmar you envision?

WWN: I am hopeful. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is very much eager to promote rule of law, so I believe she has a plan to do this. We want to see less discrimination, less arbitrary arrests, less killings. I think she can revoke some of these repressive and unnecessary laws. In terms of what she can do immediately in Rakhine State, I think she could work to return IDPs and work for proper resettlement, as well as remove the restrictions faced by the Rohingya in regards to education, movement and both general and reproductive healthcare. Those are some of the easier jobs for her to do, but even then I could see it taking two to three years.

-Cameron Conaway’s reporting was supported by the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative

-Maggie Chestney, MA candidate at Arcadia University’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, also contributed to this interview.


Cameron Conaway is the author of 5 books, including Malaria, Poems, which was named a “Best Book of 2014” by NPR. His work as a journalist has appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Harvard Business Review and ESPN. Conaway is the 2015 Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Fellow. Connect with him on Twitter @CameronConaway


Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began in 2005 as a solo blogger’s project. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.


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