Rohingya activist wins $1 million humanitarian prize

Kyaw Hla Aung, 2018 Aurora Prize laureate. Photo by: Aurora Prize

YEREVAN, Armenia — An activist who has spent 40 years fighting for Rohingya rights has won $100,000 for his work, and a further $1 million to donate to charities of his choice.

Kyaw Hla Aung, a lawyer who focuses on educational and health care rights for his community in Myanmar, was announced as the winner of the Aurora Prize on Sunday. The award includes a $100,000 grant, and the opportunity to nominate three organizations to share a $1 million donation.

During a ceremony held near the Turkish-Armenian border on Sunday morning, he said he would spend the grant on “education and humanitarian affairs” in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and added that he hoped the profile of the award would offer him some protection. He has been arrested and imprisoned multiple times for his work.

“I am in fear of arrest because this is a [situation] of genocide,” he said, pointing to the case of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer who was assassinated outside Yangon International Airport last year.

According to the activist, lack of citizenship is at the root of the Rohingya cause. The Muslim minority ethnic group is denied citizenship by Myanmar, and many are stateless. Travel restrictions meant it took him 20 days to reach Armenia for the award ceremony, he said.

About 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August 2017 following a violent military crackdown, with an estimated death toll in the tens of thousands.

Kyaw Hla Aung said he has repeatedly requested meetings with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but has so far been turned down. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been criticized globally for allowing violence against the Rohingya minority to continue at the hands of Myanmar’s military.

Delegates at the Aurora prize weekend pointed out that it would take more than money to resolve the crisis. Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, who is on the selection committee for the prize, said it would require Myanmar’s leadership feeling “concerted and sustained diplomatic pressure ... from a coalition of diverse countries,” including China. The international community would also need to change “the calculus of [Myanmar’s] government which right now — like many governments around the world — feels a great sense of impunity,” she said.

Kyaw Hla Aung has nominated three charities to share the $1 million donation. At his request, 40 percent will go to Médecins Sans Frontières UK, an NGO that has been active in the Rohingya refugee camps and for whom Kyaw Hla Aung worked for 14 years. The remainder will be shared equally between medical relief charity Mercy Malaysia and the International Catholic Migration Commission.

The Aurora Prize for Humanitarian Awakening was established in 2015 “to recognize modern day heroes” who are “advancing humanitarian causes in the face of adversity.” It is largely funded by two Armenian philanthropists alongside other donors, in memory of the Armenian genocide. Co-founder Vartan Gregorian, who is also president of the Carnegie Corporation, said the initiative was about “forming alliances among the oppressed” and learning lessons from the past to prevent such atrocities happening again.

This year, the selection panel — which also includes Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee, Oscar Arias, and Shirin Ebadi, as well as MSF co-founder Bernard Kouchner — received nominations for more than 500 humanitarians from 115 countries.

The finalists included Indian women’s rights activist Sunitha Krishnan, who fights against the sex trafficking industry through her charity Prajwala; and Friar Hector Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, who set up a refuge for migrants travelling along the dangerous route through Mexico.

Editor’s Note: The reporter traveled to Armenia with the support of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

  • Jessica abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Associate Editor for Europe. Based in London, she was previously an editor at Prospect magazine and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, Bloomberg News, and Germany's taz.die tageszeitung with a focus on global women's rights and social affairs. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.