Kyaw Hla Aung is a 78-year-old lawyer and human rights activist, who has been jailed repeatedly for his peaceful political work seeking justice for the millions of Rohingya Muslims subject to persecution in Myanmar. He is one of three humanitarians nominated this year for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which is awarded annually in Yerevan, Armenia, on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors.
The world has only recently woken up to the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community. But I, and countless others, have been subjected to harassment and discrimination since as far back as the early 1980s.
Following the adoption of the citizenship law in 1982 that excluded Rohingya as an ethnic group, the persecution of my people became unbearable. I realized I had to act. Blessed with a good education and some knowledge of the law, I committed myself to a lifetime of championing Rohingya rights and battling inequality within Myanmar.
It was a choice that came with severe consequences. I spent 12 years in prison between 1986 and 2014, always for peaceful and non-violent protests. In fact, my first prison sentence came about for simply drafting a legal petition.
My family suffered financially and emotionally. My children did not have enough food on the table, clothes on their backs or books for school. Most devastatingly, I was even prevented from attending my eldest daughter’s funeral.
Since August 2017, close to 650,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. Driven out by conflict on a scale we seldom see in our lifetimes, this struggle for basic rights is a conflict that remains highly volatile. Many of us who insist on remaining in Myanmar live in squalid camps for internally displaced people in Sittwe, the Rakhine State of Myanmar, where desperate conditions put even more lives at risk.
Most worrying to me is that our people are denied access to education. I believe that education is key to breaking the cycle of abuse. Without education, the discrimination against the Rohingya will only get worse. A lack of education makes us poorer and more vulnerable, and unless it is addressed, I believe it will eventually lead to the break-up of our community.
We need more teachers just like we need facilities to improve the health care sector. Thousands of people could die every year without access to basic care, but the whole community will die out within a few years without the ability to get a good education.
Today, the Rohingya are mostly stateless, our very identity denied. Despite the fact we have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine region for generations. To ensure our very existence, we must provide our young with the knowledge and skills to forge a future.
I refuse to give up hope. I will continue to do all I can to fight for my people’s human rights and for their right to an education. I will continue to speak truth to power. I will continue to carry our message to the global community. If that means I risk further imprisonment, harassment and everyday hardship, then that is a price I must pay.