NEW DELHI, India, November 23 (IPS) – Wai Wai Nu was not intimidated by her seven-year prison sentence, but instead stood up for the rights of all people, including the Rohingya in her home country of Myanmar, with a stronger and stronger stand.
In an exclusive interview with IPS, Wai Wai said her prison experience made her all the more aware of the need for human rights activism. What kept her going during her prison years was a desire to help other female inmates “have a dream.”
“I feel privileged when I compare myself to the other young girls and women I have interacted with in prison,” says Wai Wai.
“Most of them didn’t know how corrupt the political system was. I had a dream, a vision, whether or not I could achieve it because of my imprisonment was secondary. I felt like I could help them have a dream. ”
The youngest of three siblings, Wai Wai, 33, spent seven years as a political prisoner with her family. Imprisoned when she was only 18 years old, she had to give up her education and her everyday life. Even so, she got out of jail steadfastly and is today an inspiration to many women and activists who fight for human rights and the dignity of their communities and beyond.
Her family is Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar who is persecuted and marginalized by state and non-state actors alike.
It was her father’s activism that led to her imprisonment. Her father, who was elected to parliament in 1990, received a 47-year prison sentence that was politically motivated. The family was released in 2012.
Wai Wai has won many awards for her activism, including the 2014 N-Peace Award. She was named one of the top 100 women by the BBC that same year, and Time magazine named her one of the
Next generation leaders in 2017.
However, her greatest achievement is her ability to emerge as a woman leader in her community and inspire many like her to make changes.
“I started my activism when I was 25 years old. Apart from the many challenges, I was initially confronted with the patriarchy within my community, as there were hardly any women in leadership positions. Now I see acceptance in the same community and I’m proud to be able to break that stereotype. ”
One achievement that Wai Wai considers imperative, if intangible, is to bridge the gap between the Rohingya in Myanmar, who are extremely marginalized and isolated from mainstream Myanmar, and the rest of Myanmar and society at large.
“I am fluent in Burmese, grew up in the city and think that through my activism I have been able to break the stereotypes partly created by the media and address the Islamophobia in my community that is seen by as many as Alien” says Wai Wai.
“We (Rohingya) have played an important role in Burmese history, in its independence, and I want to remind the world of that too. Today many young people see me as someone who has not given up and tells me how my story inspires them to keep achieving something. I value this more than any achievement or award I have ever received. ”
Wai Wai recalls realizing that she had to help female prisoners because of the stigma they faced during and after their imprisonment.
She says she must help these women because they have suffered a double burden: they faced the direct consequences of their imprisonment, and beyond the prison walls their suffering continued.
After they finished their prison terms, most were no longer accepted into their families, those who were married were abandoned by their husbands and had to start over.
The fact that most of them came from impoverished economic backgrounds only made their situation worse.
“I felt like I could help fix that.”
Wai Wai founded the Women’s Peace Network in 2012.
She says her father continues to fight for human rights and, despite the suffering and the aftermath of his activism, draws inspiration from religion. Wai Wai is “committed to helping those in need”. He told her that if he dies and wants to walk on the path of righteousness, he must face Allah. “I take inspiration from his strength and his belief in justice and equality,” she says.
Wai Wai was an open advocate for democracy and human rights for all.
While referring to Myanmar’s transition to democracy, she says it affects her as the world celebrates a flawed democracy like Myanmar for its own geopolitical or economic gains. Millions of people still live here in a genocide-like situation. As a result, a flawed democracy is legitimized and atrocities and crimes against the country’s most marginalized people are prolonged.
“When we talk about democracy, we have to make sure that everyone’s human rights are protected, that everyone is politically involved, that freedom of expression and assembly is upheld,” says Wai Wai.
“When a state has marginalized an entire community and turned it into outsiders … Where the military has used this transition to democracy as a means of maintaining its power: Accepting and celebrating this as a successful transition to democracy is like the reward of a state that has not done so has even met the standard of the basic democratic criterion. ”
Of the many challenges that Wai Wai has faced, she continues to struggle by being stereotyped and manipulated by others in order to limit her work and activism.
“There are many who just want me to speak about the human rights of my community and want to limit my ability to contribute to other issues. Yes, I have a responsibility to my community and my people, but that doesn’t prevent me from advocating universal principles like democracy, youth empowerment, justice and peace in society. ”
Wai Wai Nu is the founder and director of the Women’s Peace Network and is currently a fellow at the Center for Genocide Prevention at the US Holocaust Museum.
Mariya Salim is a fellow in the IPS UN Bureau
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