For many, life from age 18 to 25 brings a thrilling expansion of freedom and experiences. For Wai Wai Nu, it brought frustration and uncertainty as a political prisoner in Burma.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on? How can I be here without committing a crime?’” says Nu, who will earn her Berkeley Law LL.M. degree in August. “I couldn’t accept that reality for some time.”
Her family is Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma described by Amnesty International as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”
Burma’s government enforces restrictions on the group in marriage, family planning, employment, education, and freedom of movement. Last fall, a military campaign destroyed hundreds of villages, forced more than 650,000 Rohingya to leave the country, and killed at least 6,700 in the campaign’s first month.
Elected to parliament in 1990, Nu’s father was routinely harassed for promoting labor rights. In 2005, he received a 47-year prison sentence for alleged state security and immigration violations. Two months later, Nu, her mother, and her two siblings were sentenced to 17 years at Insein Prison—notorious for its grim conditions—for the same offenses.
At the time, Nu was a law student. But her true legal education came during a closed-door hearing with no legal representation, a quick conviction, and no available appeal.
HONORS FOR WAI WAI NU
Top 100 Women List
Top 100 Global Thinker
Foreign Policy Magazine, 2015
100 Most Inspiring Women
Salt Magazine, 2015
Next Generation Leader
Time Magazine, 2017
Hillary Rodham Clinton Award For Advancing Women In Peace And Security, 2018
“That’s when I saw how corrupt Burma’s legal system was,” she says. “I thought, ‘When I get out, I have to try to fix it.’”
Nu’s family was released in 2012 with other political prisoners amid promises of policy reforms. Nu earned her law degree, enrolled in a political education program, and launched the Women’s Peace Network-Arakan to promote better understanding of and between ethnic minorities in western Burma.
She later established Justice for Women, a network of female lawyers that promotes democracy- and peace-building efforts, works to combat sexual harassment and domestic violence, and promotes civic participation.
Nu’s profile soared quickly after initiating the popular #MyFriend campaign, which countered hate by urging social media users to post photos of themselves with friends of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. She has since received numerous honors (see below) and increased attention.
“I want to give hope to those who are disempowered,” says Nu, a regular speaker at human-rights forums worldwide. “That’s why I came to Berkeley, to get the knowledge and skills I need to create positive change back home. … It’s so valuable to engage with people of different cultures. I’m working to foster more of that interaction in my own country.”