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Wai Wai Nu, who turns 31 this month, endured more in her teens and twenties than most people will in a lifetime. In 2005, when she was 18, Myanmar’s military regime arrested her father, an opposition MP, on political offences, along with her entire family — and clapped them in jail. “When I was young, I was told only criminals went to prison,” she recalls. “[I was thinking] did we really commit crimes? Were we really criminals?” She and her mother spent their nights over the next seven years sleeping on the floor of a group cell.
In 2012, as her country’s fitful — and still incomplete — transition to democracy began, the family were finally freed. Wai Wai Nu completed the law degree she had started before her arrest, and then enrolled in a one-year political-education programme organised by the British Council. Her experiences in prison laid the groundwork for what was to become a career in activism.
“It was my passion and dedication to work for the women in my country,” she now says. “There is a big gap in terms of gender inequality and social justice.” Inspired by the women she had met in jail, she created Justice for Women, a network of female lawyers that provides women with legal aid.
But she would become best known for her work trying to bridge the divide between different ethnic and religious groups inside Myanmar.
Her rise as an activist and speaker has coincided with the country’s emergence from the darkness of military rule to a brighter world of new democratic freedoms, but one where hatred, incitement and violence have also found expression. As a Rohingya, she has particular insight into the challenges facing the country. The Muslim minority group, which has suffered discrimination and prejudice for many years, captured the world’s attention this year after a military crackdown in western Myanmar sent more than 620,000 people fleeing from their burning villages into Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s government and military said the “clearance operations” were aimed at dislodging Rohingya militants who killed 12 security personnel in August, but some refugees arriving in Bangladesh gave accounts of mass shootings and rapes. The UN described what happened as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Wai Wai Nu chooses her words carefully in a video interview with the FT conducted via WhatsApp. “If we really want democracy, it’s not just about being able to say or do what you want but to respect what others have to say and do,” she says. It’s a universalist credo that would have sounded commonplace a few years ago but is under threat — in different ways — not only in Myanmar, but in the US, the UK, Russia, Hungary, Poland and other countries around the world. “Intolerance goes from the individual level to the group level,” she says. “That has to be changed.”
Witty and animated, she also at times seems weary of answering questions she has answered many times before, and wary of how what she says will be interpreted in Myanmar.
After violence broke out between Rohingyas and Buddhist ethnic Rakhines in the west of the country in 2012, Wai Wai Nu set up the “Women’s Peace Network — Arakan”, an NGO that organises civics-education workshops, training and other activities aimed at promoting understanding between different groups. The initiative has expanded to include men and other areas of Myanmar since then.
Unlike the Rohingya farmers and villagers who have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August, Wai Wai Nu is the product of a professional family and went to university. She holds Myanmar citizenship and a passport, allowing her to travel the world — something denied most of the one-million-plus stateless Rohingya by their government, which calls them “Bengalis” and refuses to recognise them as a distinct ethnic group.
As such, she is in demand as a speaker, interview subject and role model at the time of a cross-border humanitarian emergency that has shocked and confused the world, while stirring deep, atavistic emotions of anxiety and resentment among Myanmar’s Buddhist, ethnic Bamar majority, who feel the conflict is being misrepresented overseas.
She asserts the rights of the Rohingya but within the context of respect for all people — a brave position to take in Myanmar in 2017. “I think I have the ability to reconcile society, to build trust and mutual understanding among youth,” she says. “I think I can play a major role in building social harmony to promote the universality of human rights, respect and dignity.”
That steely optimism has helped her from a young age. Wai Wai Nu was a second-year law student when police arrived to arrest her father, who had been voted in as an MP in the 1990 elections, which Myanmar’s military rulers refused to recognise. Two months later, they came to arrest the rest of the family in the middle of the night under provisions of national security and citizenship acts.
During the trial, she thought that her father would be sentenced to a year or two, and the rest of the family freed. When the female judge read out their sentences — 47 years for her father, 17 for herself, her mother, sister and brother — she asked herself: “Is this really true?”
Wai Wai Nu’s father was sent into solitary confinement; her brother went to another prison; she, her mother and sister were jailed at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison. There, they were held in the same room as more than 100 other women — prostitutes, thieves, murderers, drug dealers and illegal gamblers.
Once the shock of the filth and discomfort wore off, Wai Wai Nu began to talk to the other women and listen to their stories. Some were indeed hardened criminals but others were victims of circumstance. “Some were sentenced without having had a fair trial,” she says. “Some were put in jail because they didn’t have enough money or couldn’t get legal counsel, or were the victims of false accusations.”
Some women sentenced for prostitution or illegal gambling had been forced into those activities because their husbands were alcoholics or drug addicts, unable to support their families. Some jailed for prostitution were not sex workers but employees of illegal massage parlours whose male owners walked away scot-free.
“I was able to learn about the life of women, and to learn about structural corruption in the political system,” she says. “It was really a life education — to understand people’s lives and feelings, mainly about women.”
In January 2012, as change began to sweep Myanmar, the family were released in an amnesty by then president Thein Sein. Wai Wai Nu’s sister was gravely ill from hepatitis C contracted in prison, and her father would go on to have three operations from health conditions caused by his incarceration in a cold concrete cell.
But Wai Wai Nu was “OK”, as she says now, with cheerful equanimity.
Since then, she has been invited to the White House and US Congress, and named one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine. The world has been eager to embrace a charismatic young woman voicing laudable virtues amid the difficulties of Myanmar’s democratic transition. In an interview with her father Kyaw Win in his office in Yangon, he told me, smiling: “From early on, she was known as my daughter. Now people ask me, ‘Are you Wai Wai Nu’s father?’”
Free speech has allowed bottled-up resentments to surface in Myanmar. As in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, jingoism and racism are being voiced in the country’s media, tea shops and Buddhist temples. Civil society activists and journalists who do not toe the official line on the Rohingya crisis are being trolled and targeted for their views. Wai Wai Nu has faced harassment and threats on social media.
In the country’s supercharged current climate, even the use of the word Rohingya is a political act, as the government and most Burmese people call the group Bengalis and consider them interlopers. Pope Francis, who has in the past spoken up on their behalf, kept the word out of his public remarks on a recent trip to Myanmar at the request of local Catholic clergy, who warned the term could stir anger and violence. He did, however, utter the word when he reached Bangladesh, asking the Rohingya’s forgiveness for what he called the “world’s indifference” to their plight.
Another older, better-known female ex-political prisoner named Aung San Suu Kyi took power as Myanmar’s de facto leader last year. While she enjoys the support of most of her citizens, she has faced criticism, mostly outside the country, for failing to speak up on behalf of the Rohingya hounded out of their homes.
“The Daw Suu government is trying to handle the issue,” Wai Wai Nu says, using the respectful term of address for Myanmar’s civilian leader when asked for her own opinion. However, “I haven’t seen Daw Suu reach out to the Rohingya community and community leaders,” she adds. “She has to address not only humanitarian issues but the root causes of the problem: political and human rights problems.”
Wai Wai Nu has done her bit, speaking up on behalf not only of the Rohingya but all the parties in other ethnic conflicts around Myanmar’s fringes. In 2015 she launched the #MyFriend campaign, meant to showcase love and tolerance among Myanmar’s diverse communities through social media.
As we talk, she proudly displays a T-shirt from the initiative that reads “Friendship has no boundaries”. The campaign encourages young people to embrace other communities, and some have done so, posting selfies with friends from other ethnicities and religions. The aim, says Wai Wai Nu, is “to bring a positive narrative to the public to promote tolerance”. The challenge in today’s Myanmar will be getting enough people to listen.
John Reed is the FT’s Bangkok regional correspondent
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