Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity.
AA: I’m Akwe Amosu…with Episode 21 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world… We’re asking what is – and isn’t – working, and what those defending rights are learning about building effective movements. Later in the show, the Coda come from an Indian queer rights defender in Thailand sharing a poem that lifts his spirits. But first we’re going to visit Myanmar and an extraordinary generation of young activists.
AA: The strength of global reaction against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been both inspiring and revealing, bringing to light admirable empathy and solidarity, but also some less comfortable truths – about what it’s like to a be black or queer amid crowds trying to escape war, for example, or that some refugees appear to be more worthy of a welcome than others. And amid all the powerful speeches about standing up for democracy, those far from Europe who have been putting their lives on the line for exactly that cause, might be forgiven for wondering whether all struggles for democracy are equal. In this episode, we’re taking a look at a struggle that is still hoping for more substantial and urgent solidarity from the democratic world – the massive grassroots rebellion against the return of military rule in Myanmar. A few weeks ago, I spoke with prominent Rohingya activist, Wai Wai Nu. Released from prison in 2012 after six years imprisonment with her whole family by the previous military regime, she took advantage of the newly open political space to start organizing and training young people in the ideas and values of human rights and democracy. But within months she saw the army launch a genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya without any challenge from then head of government and supposed champion of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. The trajectory was clear and few can have been surprised when, early last year, the military seized power once again, triggering wave upon wave of protest by students, workers, political opposition parties and professional organisations. Wai Wai Nu continues to work from outside the country and I wanted to hear her reflections on the upsurge of remarkably courageous protest that greeted the coup.
AA: Welcome Wai Wai.
Wai Wai Nu: Thank you.
AA: Maybe we could start, going back in time to when you came out of jail, and there were such high hopes for the future. Could you just describe how you saw the task at that point? What did you think was the most important thing to do and how were you setting out to do it?
WN: So at the initial month of our release in 2012, in January and up to June, we were very, very hopeful. And I was very enthusiastic. I was very active and actually joined the youth movement, the youth discussions around promoting democratic values and democratic culture from day one of my release. And, we formed like youth clubs and, you know, joined youth groups and tried to create discussions around the democratic culture. But then after about six months in June, the violent attack started to happen in Rakhine state. And I realized those people around me – the young people, the former political prisoners – all of them were so ignorant of the situations happening against the Rohingya or against the Kachin. At that time the fighting had resumed in Kachin state. So people in the urban area, the political activists, the political elite – all of them were so ignorant about the situations happening around the corner of the country, around the border. And I myself become an outsider among my circle and it hurt – it hurt so much.
AA: So you quickly realized that in addition to having to give people an opportunity to think about democracy, what it would mean to live in a democratic culture, you also had to try and address this strategy of ethnic division…
AA: …and bring particularly young people to an understanding that this was a divide and rule strategy. This wasn’t consistent with democracy and human rights. Can you say a little bit about what it was that you did to do that?
WN: Yeah, well, so when I started to realize there are need to educate people and the need to minimize ethnic divisions and basically promote human rights and human rights education in Myanmar, I started my organization called Women’s Peace Network, where we provide trainings for young people, different kind of trainings, not just the human rights and democracy training, not just civic education, but vocational trainings, or English classes too, leadership training, creating an environment for young people to come together and learn together. And um we set the policies of non-discrimination etcetera, so that before they join the trainings, they understand that they need to respect the other participants and the training, and they cannot discriminate or use hate speech during the classes. And when they sit together and interact among each other for days and weeks, they become friends. And at the end of the trainings, we realized many of these young people organize themselves and later created organizations and campaigns and platforms to further promote peace and human rights in Myanmar.
AA: And where was this happening? Where were you doing it?
WN: Our organization was based in Yangon, the former capital and the largest city in Myanmar. We have participants from different states and different religious backgrounds. And one good thing about Yangon is that a lot of young people come to study or to pursue their career. We start from a social media campaign by using this, um, you know, Facebook platform, digital platform, encouraging young people to take their selfie with their friends of diverse backgrounds and post them on social media, ‘tell the story about their friends’. I grew up with a very diverse range of friends and community in my environment and we were not appreciative of what we had. We only came to realize when the haters, the, you know, the racist people and the military started to use that against us saying that, “You people cannot live together because you guys are not same, you guys are different.” And since young people were, you know, tech savvy, as well as taking selfies was very popular at that time, when Facebook started to become popular, we spread the message across the country among the young people. Thousands of young people joined. We engaged with community leaders, religious leaders across the country, at least in six different cities in Myanmar. We also have done, you know, conventional human rights activism, such as documenting human rights crimes, violations and, and monitoring hate speech at news and writing briefers and reports, as well as conducting advocacy. But these were very challenging in an environment where human rights was not popular. And people think that human rights advocacy was not important because you have democratic transitions ongoing.
AA: So, I mean, while you were doing this work, while you were sowing these seeds, as it were, of inclusion and mutual respect, at least from the outside of the country what we were seeing was, you know, increasing mobilization of violence against Rohingya, increasing refugee problems, and more and more hate speech. And I’m wondering what you think was the net effect of that work that you did? Do you feel as though you were making progress with this strategy, or do you feel as though the haters, as you call them, were actually the ones making the progress?
WN: People like us, organizations like us – we were very minority. Our effort was so small compared with the violent attacks and the state agenda, or the military agenda against the different ethnic communities. But I do not believe that we wasted because what we were doing is seeding the ground. We were working with many young people, and today these young people [have] become leaders, and leaders of the pro-democracy movement, and they are the ones changing today. So I think if organizations like us did not invest in young people, open their eyes and their minds, they might not even see the coup as a threat.
AA: I imagine that at the time you were doing this work, it was hard for people who were not the targeted minorities to imagine that they could end up in the situation that we see today. It must have had quite a shocking effect on the broader population to discover in the post-coup violence, that they were the targets of the same kind of repression that had been meted out to minorities before.
WN: So true. It was extremely difficult for them to comprehend, to understand what is happening. A lot of young people who we worked with did not understand until the military turned against them. Um, you know, some of our students and our partners, young people, and my colleagues have actually come to apologize me for not, you know, standing up for the Rohingya or not speaking up for the Rohingya. So that was an extraordinary moment and it’s late, but it was quite a dramatic and extraordinary mindset change among the young people. And I think that is why for the human rights community, it is important to keep doing what we do and to keep believing in our values and our strategy. I do think it works. A lot of our projects were focusing on young people but at the same time, we also use other strategies to identify like minded stakeholders – civil society leaders, journalists, and academics to bring people together to consolidate the power, so basically creating allies and coalitions is part of the strategy. I don’t think we can work alone. We need to build allies, we need to build coalitions. We need to fight with unity against this authoritarianism.
AA: It’s clear that there is a remarkable amount of organization taking place. You see huge signs of unions, groups of workers organizing, these extraordinary demonstrations – they give the impression of a very dense civil society. Is it possible for you from outside the country to be engaged in supporting that work or is the situation now so chaotic, so violent, so complex that it’s not possible in this period?
WN: The political climate and the conditions on the ground has changed. And yes, there is a lot of organizing – There have been new initiatives and organizations created since the coup attempt. And I think the strategy that people are using and we are using, is not the same as we used to have. In the past, although it was very repressive, we still had some freedom in the urban area. We still were able to conduct physical activities, such as trainings, discussions, workshops; but now it will be extremely challenging to conduct any physical activities. The good thing about the current situation is that since COVID 19 began, a lot of us have actually adapted to the more digital communications and digital activism, although it is not very safe, you know, especially for those people, young people, inside Myanmar to even join the online discussions or trainings. But we are still able to do it with security precautions. So that’s an upside.
AA: You said that what’s being done now, in the wake of the coup, is different from what was being done before. And so I’m curious about what you and your colleagues are doing in terms of trying to support activists in this moment – what are the priorities for organization at this point?
WN: Right now, as I said, there are many new organizing groups created, to respond to the coup attempt. And the priority for those new organizations, including us, is to stand against the military, to do everything that we can to weaken the military institution. So over the past year, what we have come to learn is that if people are united, if we come together, we are stronger and it is easier for us to fight against the military dictatorship. Because we have already proven it. The resistance against the military is so large scale, including people from so many backgrounds and generations, to the ethnic communities, to religious backgrounds and from social classes – because it’s a very wide range and spread out across the entire country and involve so many actors, the military hasn’t been able to consolidate their power. It’s the power of unity, it’s the power of the people coming together, power of people understanding their priority and how to respond to it, how to take, how to play our own parts. So people in this country – so interesting, the extraordinary thing that I have found is that everybody understands how to play their own part; and people who can use online, they are mastering their online skill. People who can organize among different groups, they are mastering their skills, and people are maximizing their skillset to respond to this and taking part their own responsibility. So do our organizations and ourselves, we’re using our strength and our skill over all of these years to really be effective in this fight against the Myanmar military.
AA: I mean, it’s quite striking that it is as you say, given the violence that people are having to absorb, and the fact that the resistance has lasted with such intensity throughout the year, despite the use of heavy weaponry, extra judicial killings, remarkable levels of detention and torture, people are still going. Does that surprise you? Where’s that resilience coming from?
WN: It does surprise me. I mean, it’s – yes and no. Actually, yes, it does surprise me because, you know, before the coup a lot of people in Myanmar thought, you know, they were achieving democracy and they don’t have to worry about human rights. I think one good thing about the political opening from 2011 to 2021 until the military coup is that people had opportunity to engage or to be exposed to the wider community beyond Myanmar by using internet. And also, being able to engage with different outsiders since trade was open, tourism was open etcetera. So that was one key part that I think we have to pay notice to. And second part is that the investment of the civil society organization across the country over the past 10 years, including us, you know, by providing civic education, democracy education, people were enlightened. I think once they realize, you know, the very minimum level of freedom that they had was taken away, they were shocked. They’re shocked, they’re in shock. And they think at this point seeing how the world is moving ahead, people think this is unacceptable. So I think that’s where the motive for this resistance movement is coming from. Young people feel their future has been ripped away and that is unacceptable and they have to own their future, and they’re going to create their own future. And they know that if they don’t take a step they won’t have a future that they want and they need to take responsibility and they need to take action to fight for that future. And I believe Myanmar is the first country actually, uh, to take arms, to fight for the human rights and democracy.
AA: So that’s a great place for us to go next, because one of the questions I’ve been puzzling over is this question of the National Unity Government calling on people to take up arms to defend democracy. For a lot of people, by definition, a struggle to defend rights is a nonviolent struggle. Once you turn it into a military conflict, which is clearly now happening, not just in the states where this was a pattern already, but broadly across the country, is there still space to act in defense of human rights in a nonviolent way?
WN: So it is not true that the entire country has taken arms and fighting against the military with armed struggle. That is not true, but of course the National Unity Government declare war against the military, as well as a lot of young people taking arms. A lot of young people who joined the resistance movement with armed struggle, with the People Defense Forces, PDFs or National Unity Government’s army – I think they are joining them as a strategy to fight against the military – they think this is the only strategy left with them, and there are no other options, um, because there aren’t enough support from the international community. So now they have to take their arms to fight against them. And I also know that a lot of young people do not believe that they can win the military with only armed struggle, but it is part of their strategy and struggle that they are taking risks to, to take part. And, and it is, it is heartbreaking. At the same time, I find this very courageous and, um, it is not easy for people to give up everything and to take arms to fight against them and they can be killed anytime. And it’s not just that the consequences are so high, it’s not just against them, but also their family members and their relatives. So even knowing that risk, you know, being able to take arms is something enormous. And, it says everything. And I think this is very important to realize. But there are a large portions of the pro-democracy movement still continuing with non-violent strategy from the street protest to, you know, other digital media campaign, to the economic consumer boycott and economic strikes and so on, including, you know, pot and pan banging campaign, to many other campaigns that people continue and remain committed. So I think that is important to understand when we see the news, they might be only showing you a civil war or only protesters taking arms, uh, it is true, but it’s not the entire story,. And my organizations and many other organizations, civil society organizations remain nonviolent and continue to do our part.
AA: So finally, You’ve talked about the way that the earlier efforts towards democracy fell short, is this also then an opportunity this moment, grim as it is – does this crisis offer an opportunity to do a different, better job of moving towards an inclusive society next time around?
WN: I think, you know, in Myanmar, It wasn’t just – I never blame people for not standing up for human rights in the past, because it wasn’t their fault. It was the failure of leadership. It was the result and impact of long-lasting military dictatorship. It was the impact of poor education system. It was the impact of lack of critical thinking among the society. There are many factors that have contributed to the people’s mindset in the past. And I think the leadership has to take responsibility and need to be held accountable for that for the society, for the people. I think now they have awakened, and I don’t think they will go to the similar path and I don’t believe that they will go against each other again, and things will be different once we achieve democracy again. I don’t want people to give up on us and on human rights and a better future for the country.
AA: Okay. Wai Wai, thank you very much indeed.
WN: Thank you too. I hope this helps.
AA: Wai Wai Nu is a Burmese human rights advocate and the founder of two organisations in Myanmar, the Womens’ Peace Network and the Yangon Youth Center. You can find a transcript of our conversation and some suggestions for further reading on our website, strength and solidarity.org
AA: For our Coda, we like to get someone in the human rights field to tell us about something that’s supporting or inspiring or provoking their work. Ryan Figueiredo leads an organization focused on building collaboration and finding solutions to problems faced by queer communities in Asia… He wanted to tell us about a poem by Denise Levertov, called Making Peace.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
RF: What was really incredibly moving about this poem is – at a time I found it, right? – you know, the sense of guilt that I was experiencing of not doing enough. And I think Denise really came to the rescue here. I think somehow in this pursuit of justice, we have forgotten how to experience peace.
RF: I think every activist has these moments in the work that they do, where they have to kind of come back to themselves and, you know, try to understand, what it is that they’re trying to do. And, in the chaos of, you know, the world around us, we sometimes forget to do that, you know, we are either writing these reports or trying to meet a deadline or trying to save some person who is incarcerated. We forget to kind of go back to our ourselves and ask ourselves what is it that we are feeling. And I think what that does is – that if we don’t do that – it contracts, it contracts us. It doesn’t allow us to have this expansiveness of mind and heart that I think she she’s speaking about in this poem.
RF: I am full of frustrations with the slowness of the movement, you know – there’s a lot of friction in the work that we’re trying to do, right? And I think what Denise is trying to say is that it is this friction that really kind of polishes us in the work that we do. She talks about these facets of light. And I think that’s so incredibly powerful.
RF: So as I was sitting with this kind of reflection, this prayer, my heart is less heavy, you know, after these two years of COVID, and our inability to kind of do the things that we set out to do in the beginning, I feel my heart is less heavy. There is still that brain fog <laugh>, there is still that, uh, you know, we still have to write those reports. We still have to set up those emailers. But the heart is less heavy.
AA: Our thanks to Ryan Figueiredo, founder and director of the Equal Asia Foundation based in Bangkok… The poem he shared was Denise Levertov’s Making Peace.
AA: That’s it for episode 21 of Strength and Solidarity. Thanks for listening. If you’re new to the podcast, check out our past 20 episodes – all easily accessible on our website. Again, that’s strengthandsolidarity.org. And drop us a line, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, thanks to Producer Peter Coccoma, and to our program manager Cate Brown – see you next time.