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.
Truly I was in prison just because of my father’s political movement, [his] involvement in Myanmar’s [Burma] democracy’s movement. And because of [him having] made alliances with the opposition.
Also one of the reasons why we were put in jail is because of our identity [as Rohingya]. So at that time we had no trial. So we felt we were put in jail with injustice. [The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in Burma’s Rakhine State.]
Also, inside the prison, there was no proper treatment. In the prison, in the first few years we didn’t get enough water, we didn’t get enough food. We were not allowed to read books.
We didn’t get a good place to sleep. A very terrible situation. And also… even when we were not tortured physically, we had a lot of mental torture without having [committed] any crimes.
For me personally, I was a young student. At that time I was a second-year law student. As a young student and as a young woman I felt it was really terrible.
I was thinking [about] those authorities, the government… if the people from the government didn’t have children or a daughter like me. Why did I have to be put in jail without having committed any proper crime?
Also I think it’s like killing the future of the youth. Since that time I have decided to work for those other young people in Burma [so they do] not have to face unjust situations like I did.
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.