September 17, 2018
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.”
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.