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Interviews : Wai Wai Nu

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Wai Wai Nu is a Burmese freedom activist. She’s a former political prisoner and the co-founder of Justice for Women. She is also the founder and director of the Women Peace Network Arakan.

As a teenager, Wai Wai Nu was arrested and imprisoned by the government because of her father’s political activism. During her seven-year incarceration, she reflected frequently on the injustices she experienced as a political prisoner and the general state of freedom in Burma.

Since her release from prison in 2012, Wai Wai Nu has dedicated herself to working for democracy, human rights, and women’s rights. She has worked on behalf of marginalized women and in support of equality and justice for all women in Burma. Through her two organizations, she leads women’s empowerment trainings, women’s rights trainings, basic legal education, and peace-building activities.

Wai Wai Nu recently earned her law degree and is focusing on justice issues for women. She was also a member of the George W. Bush Institute’s inaugural Liberty and Leadership Forum. 

For me freedom… Everyone should be granted their fundamental rights, equally, with respect and dignity. What freedom means to me is: everyone’s basic rights are granted equally with full respect and with dignity regardless of differences.

The first thing is… I myself faced injustice in my life.

When I was 18 years old I was arrested and sentenced for 17 years and I had lost my education… and our future. I don´t want any other young people in Burma to face that kind of situation again.

Also, when we look at the changes in Myanmar [Burma], we don´t see… we are not sure if it is real change to democracy or not.

[In 2011, Burmese President Thein Sein began enacting a reform agenda that has eased government restrictions on civil liberties and opened more political space for opposition parties.]

And we see a lot of human rights violations and problems that need [to be] solved in Myanmar [Burma]. 

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

More from Wai Wai Nu

Wai Wai Nu: What is Freedom? “Everyone should be granted their fundamental rights.” Wai Wai Nu: Inspiration “They never gave up.” Wai Wai Nu: Helping Burma “How can I get involved in this to solve the problem?” More + Wai Wai Nu: International Support “We need international support to get real democracy and freedom in Burma.” Wai Wai Nu: Life as a Political Prisoner “We didn’t get enough water, we didn’t get enough food. We were not allowed to read books.” Wai Wai Nu: Risks of Being a Freedom Activist “I choose the risks and challenges to continue to work for justice, democracy and freedom.” Wai Wai Nu: Justice for Burma “We should ask why these people have to suffer.” Wai Wai Nu: Background Wai Wai Nu discusses being a political prisoner.