At the Hamilton Lugar School’s sixth conference on America’s Role in the World®, Rohingya Burmese activist Wai Wai Nu will receive the School’s Global Voices for Change Award, given for her dedication to improving the lives of Rohingya in Myanmar, empowering marginalized women, advocating for equal rights, and enhancing mutual understanding between diverse groups. Afterward she will sit in conversation with Ambassador Lee Feinstein, founding dean of the Hamilton Lugar School, to discuss the future of Myanmar, the need for equal rights, and Nu’s own background as a Rohingya activist.
Imprisoned at the age of 18 along with the rest of her family for her father’s activism and their Rohingya identity, Nu spent seven years without freedom, work, or rights. She was released from prison in 2012, but the persecution of the Muslim minority in Myanmar continued. In late 2016 and again starting in 2017, the Myanmar military took part in a series of indiscriminate violent campaigns against Rohingya that, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to crimes against humanity, resulting in mass deaths and more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring states, particularly Bangladesh.
The UN has described this forced emigration of an ethnic minority as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Watchdog groups have characterized the violence as genocide, and an independent fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council has recommended that senior generals of the Myanmar military be tried in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
The refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where many Rohingya live under precarious and unsanitary conditions, is the largest refugee camp in the world.
Severe threats against the Rohingya remain. Despite the International Court of Justice demanding that the Myanmar government take necessary steps to prevent genocidal violence, Nu recently wrote, “No substantive improvements have been made since 2017 that would mitigate the risk of genocide to the Rohingya people.”
“Rohingya perceptions of justice are about so much more than criminal accountability and genocide—justice means being able to return to their places of origin, being recognized as a group native to Burma, and having their full citizenship and other equal rights restored,” she added.
Crucial to equal political rights and full citizenship is the right to vote. The Rohingya have not had citizenship rights in Myanmar since 1982, making them the world’s largest stateless population.
Before the most recent elections in Myanmar—a nation of more than one hundred ethnic groups—Nu said, “Our populations want to be able to have our political rights to vote and to participate in the elections,” and called for outside states to assist with their democratic participation.
Nu’s political activism for full civil rights began when she was released from prison. In 2012 she founded the Women’s Peace Network, which works to build peace and mutual understanding between Burma’s ethnic communities and to empower and advocate for the rights of marginalized women throughout Burma, and particularly in Rakhine State.
Her work also aims to reduce discrimination and hatred among Buddhist and Muslim communities and to improve the human rights of the Rohingya people through documentation, convenings, and policy advocacy among key leaders in Burma and high-level international fora.
In order to connect with young people and increase mutual understanding between diverse groups, Nu founded the Yangon Youth Leadership Center, which educates young leaders in Myanmar on civics, politics, peace building, human rights, and English.
Her work has continued with the My Friend Campaign, which also focuses on youth, and Justice for Women in Yangon, a legal and advocacy organization that works with victims of gender-based violence and provides pro bono legal consultation.
She received her law degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 2018 and is now a Simon-Skjodt Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she is designing and implementing outreach efforts around the Museum’s exhibition, Burma’s Path to Genocide. She is also serving as an advisor on the pursuit of justice and accountability in Burma.