Political activist Wai Wai Nu detailed her work advocating for democracy and human rights, particularly on behalf of marginalized women and members of the Rohingya minority population in Myanmar to dozens of students and community members on Wednesday.
Nu was awarded the Hillary Clinton Award from the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security earlier this year, and was recognized by Time magazine in 2017 as one of its next Generation leaders of the world. The event was hosted by CEW+ and co-sponsored by the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
Nu opened her speech describing how she and her family were arrested and imprisoned in 2005 while she was a second-year Law student in Myanmar because of her father’s pro-democracy and equality advocacy.
Following her family’s imprisonment, Nu said she began to question began questioning the reason for her detention and realized she was the victim of political injustice.
“Every single day and night I started to ask questions. Why is this happening?… What was my crime?… and I found out it was just because of injustice. It was just because of who I am. And I was shocked to realize that without doing anything or any crime,” she stated.
During her time in prison, Nu also began to have conversations with the other women in the jail. She was shocked by the number of imprisoned women and realized many were wrongly imprisoned while others who had committed crimes were victims of a broken political and social system in Myanmar.
“There were about 2,000 women in the prison,” she said. “I talked to each of them and realized they were not criminals too. There were some criminals, they were guilty, they did commit their crime … but a lot of them are not, because I started to realize that … even drug dealers who were engaging with those activities, not because they wanted to but because of the system’s errors.”
Nu’s family was released following the fall of the military dictatorship in Myanmar; however, Nu continued to see the same societal issues plague her society. Buddhist nationalism spread rapidly in Myanmar, leading to Islamophobia and oppression of the Rohingya. Human Rights Watch declared military and state campaigns against the Rohingya an example of ethnic cleansing.
After these experiences, Nu decided it was time to act. She created the Women’s Peace Network to begin empowering women and combat the racism and sexism that plague her society.
Nu stressed the importance of reaching out to both men and women to empower women. Nu recognized this when she started her outreach programs and learned how to bring more men to the table.
“In the first place we have to bring men and women together. So that they really feel, sitting together, that they are equal … when we do these women focus activities and a theme as a women’s organization, no man wants to join our program. So … when we changed the name to ‘youth center,’ we have a program and a lot of men joined. So it’s very successful today.”
Nu discussed how her programs bring people together, and after discussed how her programs support collaboration, learning from each other and building trust, allowing them to begin to respect each other’s differences and build bonds across ethnic and gender lines. Despite this, Nu stressed her society has a ways to go, as many businessmen and other political leaders don’t see these societal issues as affecting them, and the problem will persist until people in her country and around the globe take collective action against the societal issues that persist in Myanmar.
For example, Nu highlighted how Facebook provided a forum for hate speech against marginalized people in Myanmar.
“Facebook has become a huge platform for the governments and for the people that want to incite hatred by using this platform,” she said. “And Facebook was not able to control, and did not realize how bad it was.”
The speech was followed by a Q&A session. One of the members of the audience inquired Nu about how to challenge assumptions of marginalized people.
“For me, I realized education … is key to counter this understanding,” she responded. “When you have education and when you empower … you are ready to face those assumptions.”
Anthony Su, a third year Pd.D student at the School of Public Health, said Nu’s message of common humanity inspired him.
“Overall, everything stood out,” he said. “Loving towards others. Don’t think of others as others. Treating each human being as human beings.”