Wai Wai Nu

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Wai Wai Nu (Burmese: ဝေဝေနု; born 1987) is a Burmese activist who advocates for the rights and equality of all people in Myanmar, including the Rohingya. She was listed one of the BBC 100 Women in 2014. In 2017, she was named one of Time magazine's Next Generation Leaders.

I can play a major role in building social harmony to promote the universality of human rights, respect and dignity.


  • I thought, ‘What’s going on? How can I be here without committing a crime?’ I couldn’t accept that reality for some time... I saw how corrupt Burma’s legal system was and how there was no independent judiciary... I had thought only criminals go to prison, but I met so many women there who never committed a crime. I thought, ‘When I get out, I’m going to fix it.’ I had no idea how, but I knew I had to try.... Our constitution is not democratically written, and the text allows the military the most powerful positions in government... Power should be in the public’s hands, not the military’s. Another problem is our number of discriminative laws that don’t protect the people. Our so-called democratic legislation in fact restricts freedom and rights. That’s why I started advocating for legal and constitutional reform... young people are still open to a different perspective, and that’s how we can change public opinion. Once we change public opinion, it’s easier to change the policies... I want to give hope and empower those who are disempowered. Sometimes the work feels overwhelming, but I always think I should be doing more.
  • When I was young, I was told only criminals went to prison... [I was thinking] did we really commit crimes? Were we really criminals?... There is a big gap in terms of gender inequality and social justice.... If we really want democracy, it’s not just about being able to say or do what you want but to respect what others have to say and do... Intolerance goes from the individual level to the group level... That has to be changed... I think I have the ability to reconcile society, to build trust and mutual understanding among youth... I think I can play a major role in building social harmony to promote the universality of human rights, respect and dignity.
    • Quoted in Myanmar activist Wai Wai Nu: ‘Prison was really a life education’, by John Reed, The Financial Times, (6 December 2017)
  • Some were sentenced without having had a fair trial... Some were put in jail because they didn’t have enough money or couldn’t get legal counsel, or were the victims of false accusations... I was able to learn about the life of women, and to learn about structural corruption in the political system... It was really a life education — to understand people’s lives and feelings, mainly about women.
    • Quoted in Myanmar activist Wai Wai Nu: ‘Prison was really a life education’, by John Reed, The Financial Times, (6 December 2017)
  • I feel I was privileged when I compare myself to the other young girls and women that I interacted with while I was in prison... Most of them were unaware of how corrupt the political system was. I had a dream, a vision, whether or not I could achieve it because of my imprisonment was secondary. I felt I could help them have a dream... I started my activism when I was 25-years-old. Apart from the many challenges, I was faced with patriarchy from within my community initially as there were close no women in leadership roles. Now I see an acceptance from the same community, and I am proud to have been able to break this stereotype... I speak Burmese fluently, I grew up in the city, and I think, through my activism, I have been able to break the stereotypes created in part by the media and address the Islamophobia around my community, which is seen by so many as alien.

Quotes about Wai Wai Nu[edit]

  • The BBC named Nu to its Top 100 Women list in 2014, and in 2015 she was named a Top 100 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy Magazine and among the 100 Most Inspiring Women by Salt Magazine. She also participated in a democratic-transition training program for young leaders at the George W. Bush Presidential Center that year... Nu has spoken at human rights forums around the world, including the Oslo Freedom Forum last May. She recently helped persuade the United Nations to conduct a fact-finding mission in Burma — though she lobbied for a more intensive Commission of Inquiry... Nu wants to channel the legal expertise she gains in Berkeley this summer and next toward reforms aimed at the rule of law. She hopes to advance constitutional reform, in part by developing analytical research papers on certain laws, and eventually set up a small law firm to counsel and support international businesses in Burma — which can help support her nonprofits... Nu has fond memories of growing up on Burma’s western coast, where she faced little discrimination and interacted freely with people in different communities and ethnic groups. Now, however, she sees a region rife with fear and hopelessness.
  • Wai Wai Nu, who turns 31 this month, endured more in her teens and twenties than most people will in a lifetime. In 2005, when she was 18, Myanmar’s military regime arrested her father, an opposition MP, on political offences, along with her entire family... She and her mother spent their nights over the next seven years sleeping on the floor of a group cell. In 2012, as her country’s fitful — and still incomplete — transition to democracy  began, the family were finally freed. Wai Wai Nu completed the law degree she had started before her arrest, and then enrolled in a one-year political-education programme organised by the British Council. Her experiences in prison laid the groundwork for what was to become a career in activism...  Wai Wai Nu set up the “Women’s Peace Network — Arakan”, an NGO that organises civics-education workshops, training and other activities aimed at promoting understanding between different groups. The initiative has expanded to include men and other areas of Myanmar since then.
    • Myanmar activist Wai Wai Nu: ‘Prison was really a life education’, by John Reed, The Financial Times, (6 December 2017)
  • When the female judge read out their sentences — 47 years for her father, 17 for herself, her mother, sister and brother — she asked herself: “Is this really true?” Wai Wai Nu’s father was sent into solitary confinement... she, her mother and sister were jailed at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison. There, they were held in the same room as more than 100 other women — prostitutes, thieves, murderers, drug dealers and illegal gamblers. Once the shock of the filth and discomfort wore off, Wai Wai Nu began to talk to the other women and listen to their stories. Some were indeed hardened criminals but others were victims of circumstance...
    In 2015 she launched the #MyFriend campaign, meant to showcase love and tolerance among Myanmar’s diverse communities through social media... The aim, says Wai Wai Nu, is “to bring a positive narrative to the public to promote tolerance”. 
    • Myanmar activist Wai Wai Nu: ‘Prison was really a life education’, by John Reed, The Financial Times, (6 December 2017)
  • Instead of being cowed by her seven-year imprisonment, Wai Wai Nu, emerged stronger and more determined to fight for the rights of all people, including the Rohingya in her native Myanmar... Wai Wai says her prison experience made her all the more aware of the need for human rights activism. What kept her going during her prison years was the desire to help other women inmates to ‘have a dream’. The youngest of three siblings, Wai Wai (33), spent seven years as a political prisoner with her family. Imprisoned at only 18, she was forced to give up her education, her everyday life. Still, she came out of prison undeterred and today is an inspiration to many women and activists fighting for human rights and dignity of their communities and beyond... She considers her most outstanding achievement to be the ability to emerge as a woman leader from her community and inspire many like her to be changemakers.

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