Wai Wai Nu spent seven years as a political prisoner in Myanmar’s infamous Insein Prison. Her only crime was to be the daughter of a school teacher and political activist from Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
After her release in 2012, Nu completed her law studies and decided to dedicate her life to promoting democracy and human rights, particularly on behalf of marginalized communities and members of her ethnic group, the Rohingya Muslims.
Addressing a United Nations Human Rights Council panel discussion on Myanmar earlier this month, Nu spoke from her heart.
“For decades, ethnic minorities in Myanmar have been subjected to the most brutal forms of violence and policies that amount to crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide,” said Nu, who is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network, an organization that focuses on peace building in Myanmar.
“As we speak, the key perpetrators of these atrocities, the Myanmar military and security forces, are intensifying their brutality, including by launching airstrikes and committing arrest and detention, torture, sexual violence, and killing across the country,” she said.
Held during the 50th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the panel discussed the root causes of violations and abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.
For decades, Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar have endured discrimination and persecution. In a 2020 report, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that discrimination and exclusion against ethnic and religious minority groups have been the hallmark of the laws and policies of Myanmar for over half a century.
Speaking at the panel, Bachelet reminded the Council that more than one million Rohingyas have fled their homes in Rakhine State to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh since the military unleashed a military campaign five years ago.
“At the same time, in the wake of the military coup of February 2021, we also continue to witness the re-escalation of armed conflicts and violent repression in many other parts of Myanmar, inflicting yet more displacement and suffering on ethnic and religious minorities,” Bachelet said.
The High Commissioner urged the international community to stand united in pressuring the military to halt its military campaigns.
“The international community must use its influence to restore rule of the country to a legitimate and independent civilian government with no military oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial powers.”
Nu, who travels the world to speak publicly on the plight of Rohingya women and girls, described the situation in Rakhine State as “living in an open prison.” She said the military junta has declared that it will enforce the death penalty of four democracy activists.
Over 600,000 Rohingyas continue to live in apartheid-like conditions, she told the panel, including 140,000 forcibly segregated in internally displaced person camps, where they are denied access to basic needs and livelihoods.
The military requires Rohingyas to obtain permission to travel within and outside of Rakhine State, arresting those who allegedly violate such a discriminatory policy, she said. Rohingyas must also present national verification cards which do not confer citizenship and identify them as “Bengali” to conduct their daily activities, including traveling for medical treatment and schools.
Those who have fled the country have not met better conditions, with refugees living in squalid refugee camps and detention centers in neighboring countries and facing the threat of falling victim to sex traffickers, Nu said.
“Women, girls, and LGBTQ+ members in particular – many of whom have survived the military’s sexual violence – remain at heightened risk of being raped, sexually harassed and exploited, and forcibly trafficked.”
WAI WAI NU, WOMEN’S PEACE NETWORK
Thyn Zar Oo, co-founder and programme director of the Public Legal Aid Network, blamed Myanmar’s violence on institutional racism, ultranationalist attitudes and colonial-era fears of losing cultural and religious identity. To move forward, the county needs to implement reforms that promote equality and freedom, and access to justice and information rather than propaganda.
“The country needs a change of mindset,” Oo said.
Laetitia van den Assum, a diplomatic expert and member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission headed by the late Kofi Annan, said ending segregation and reintroducing ethnically mixed schools would help bring an end to violence. Statelessness is not only an issue for Rakhine State and the Rohingyas, she noted.
“There are thousands of others who are considered stateless, including Gurkhas, Tamils, Hindus and Chinese. If Myanmar does not bring its legislation in line with international standards, its problem will continue to grow,” Van den Assum said.
For Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka, Myanmar’s policy towards the Rohingya is rooted in an “unspoken racial feeling” of the military and civilian elite of the country, which led to the national Constitution of Myanmar, a charter that does not recognize the Rohingyas
“It is clear that without bringing pressure, including economic and political sanctions, nothing will change the tragic fate of the Rohingyas,” Ahmed said.