MADURAI, India — U Kyaw Hla Aung, 78, a lawyer and activist, remembers a time when there was no discrimination against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Just weeks after winning the $1.1 million Aurora Prize, the Rohingya activist spoke by phone from his home in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state — from which more than 700,000 of his countrymen fled in the past year amid brutal state violence.
Kyaw Hla Aung began his career in 1960, as a clerk at the state court in Sittwe. At the time, he says, Rohingya Muslims held high positions in government offices, police departments, and the army. There were Muslim teachers, doctors, judges, and lawyers.
“Starting from 1970s, discrimination has been increasing with every passing day,” said Kyaw Hla Aung. “Now, we cannot see a single Muslim staff in Rakhine state as well as in Central Myanmar.”
Aid groups and U.N. agencies are increasingly vocal in their calls to improve conditions for Rohingya in Myanmar. The public advocacy could signal a change in the way the aid community plans to use its collective voice to address the Rohingya crisis moving forward.
Prejudices began to build when Rohingya Muslims were increasingly regarded as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh,” he said. At first, it was subtle. Rohingya could not get promoted. Soon, the government stopped appointing Rohingya altogether and forced existing staffers to retire from their jobs.
The violent military-led clearance operation, that began in August 2017, saw villages razed, mass rapes, and the murder of thousands of Rohingya. The operation, which the United Nations called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” had echoes of Operation Nagamin led by General Ne Win in 1978, where some 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amid similar circumstances. When repatriated, the returning Rohingya were considered citizens — but a 1982 law stripped citizenship, leaving the Rohingya stateless and open to discrimination.
In the intervening years, Kyaw Hla Aung witnessed mounting recrimination against the Rohingya. Police stations frequently refused to accept complaints filed by Rohingya, while court judgements varied greatly based on religious affiliation.
While working as a court stenographer, Kyaw Hla Aung accompanied judges to townships across Rakhine state. Spurred by the injustice he saw, he began training as a lawyer himself in 1982 and graduated with distinction. Decades later, his degree was the only document he could save when his home was razed during the sectarian violence of 2012.
As a lawyer, Kyaw Hla Aung took his first case in 1986, when a group of Muslim farmers were arrested, and their land confiscated under state seizure laws. Kyaw Hla Aung wrote an appeal letter, protesting the draconian laws. In retaliation, he himself was arrested under a controversial colonial-era act used to quash dissent.
“The authorities wanted to confiscate agricultural lands [to] construct university buildings and charged me with obstructing the project,” he said.
In prison, Kyaw Hla Aung’s health declined rapidly. Arthritic and prone to gastric disorders, he suffered from the poor conditions in prison while defending his own case for the next two years. Meals consisted of rotting boiled vegetables in a damp and dark cell.
“Every adjournment day was exhausting because prisoners were ferried to court in a van, which held 50 to 60 at a time,” he said. “We were packed into cells with a capacity for 10 people. Toilets were in the same cell without any cover. I had to appear at the court for approximately 100 adjournments in two years.”
Kyaw Hla Aung was eventually released in 1988, and in the following year, with the support of his friends and colleagues, he established the National Democratic Party for Human Rights. His intention was to fight for equal rights for Rohingya, to restore their lost identity through legal means. While he was campaigning for office, a senior general ordered his arrest. The thought of a Rohingya in politics was unpalatable for many.
In April 1990, after a one-hour trial and evidence from a single witness, Kyaw Hla Aung was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
At the start of his sentence, an incident brought home to him how much justice had been denied to his fellow Rohingya. Two of his fellow prisoners were young boys, 8 and 9 years old, serving seven-year sentences. “Their crime was throwing cow dung at a Buddhist image,” said Kyaw Hla Aung.
After four years in a cell, prison authorities allowed Kyaw Hla Aung to serve out the rest of his term in a private room in the prison hospital, along with 14 other political prisoners. He was released in 1997.
When violence broke out in Rakhine state in 2012, Kyaw Hla Aung once again found himself in the authorities’ crosshairs.
“We have now become a stateless people, without any identity in a country that we’d always lived in and called home. Our biggest battles today are with illiteracy, weakening health — and a complete erasure of our identity.”— Kyaw Hla Aung, Rohingya lawyer and activist
After his house and library were destroyed by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, Kyaw Hla Aung was taken into police custody and detained for two months. A year later, he was arrested for the fourth time and held for 15 months, until then-President Thein Sein granted him amnesty. By then, much of his family had been displaced and reconnecting with them was no easy task. “It was a very difficult time,” Kyaw Hla Aung recounted.
“We have now become a stateless people, without any identity in a country that we’d always lived in and called home. Our biggest battles today are with illiteracy, weakening health — and a complete erasure of our identity.”
Kyaw Hla Aung, who says he is in fear of his safety in Myanmar, has nominated three charities to share the Aurora prize money.
When Kyaw Hla Aung won the Aurora Prize, he selected Médecins Sans Frontières UK, Mercy Malaysia, and the International Catholic Migration Commission as the recipients of the $1 million prize money. He made this choice, he said, because he feels that health care is one of the greatest needs that the Rohingya will face in the years ahead. Government hospitals have refused to treat Rohingya, while independent clinics and doctors have at times been barred. The gaping hole in health care worries Kyaw Hla Aung, as does the lack of literacy in the displaced population. Without education, he fears the Rohingya community can be easily silenced and suppressed and will perhaps never seek the reinstatement of their citizenship and civil liberties.
As the violence against the Rohingya is being increasingly characterized as genocide, as horrific accounts of rape and army atrocities emerge every day, as Rohingya lead their lives in limbo, Kyaw Hla Aung appeals to the international community to seek out and gain a deeper understanding of the history of Muslim Rohingya and their ties to the Rakhine state.
Until 2010, Rohingya could even vote in elections, he said. “Why does the government deny our citizenship rights now? All we ask for is peace.”