At 18, Wai Wai Nu was not an activist. So when security forces arrived one day and rounded up her whole family it came as a shock.
I didn’t realise I was arrested until after I arrived at prison!
But it didn’t take long for the reality to become clear. With her family, she was quickly tried and convicted, and the doors of Burma’s notorious Insein Prison closed behind her.
For Wai Wai, the next 7 years were “full of horrors” – cramped and overcrowded cells, lack of food, poor medical care. But worst of all, she saw no hope and no future.
During those harsh years, Wai Wai heard the stories of the many women incarcerated with her. Women yearning for freedom, whose plight echoed her own.
However, those years also gave her a kind of gift, in the form of the many women who shared their stories with her. It was those stories of poverty and persecution that ignited her passion to pursue justice for women in Burma. “I was in prison because of my identity”, she has said. She now refers to those years as her “University of Life”.
But when Wai Wai was released in 2012 she was shocked to find that the peaceful towns she remembered from her youth were now places of fear. That is because Wai Wai’s family is Rohingya, the Muslim minority of Burma’s west. Because of who they are – their identity – Rohingyas had become the target of violent persecution by government forces.
By 2017 the Rohingya population of Burma had been systematically brutalized, with huge numbers forced out of the country. The United Nations calls the Rohingya “the world’s most persecuted people” and the situation has been likened to ethnic cleansing.
Denied citizenship in Burma, the Rohingya are stateless – they belong nowhere. This lack of identity, and the fear that they will never be granted one, has led some Rohingya to turn to technology. A digital identity – one that cannot be given or taken away by any country or person – could help the scattered Rohingya population to get access to services and protection.
Back in Burma, Wai Wai is working hard to make sure all Rohingya have a chance at safety and participation. Through her Women’s Peace Network, her goal is to “promote respect, love and inclusion by empowering youth and women and by providing democratic education.” Not only does she train people at home, she also travels the world advocating not only for the rights of the Rohingya, but for trust and unity amongst all people.
For Wai Wai, young people are the key.
We have to treat our young generation about the true meaning of democracy and technology for good. If we educate the younger generation, Burma can be a better place with peace and prosperity for everyone. We still have hope.