YANGON – “Without ending war we can’t move forward as a nation,” said 23-year-old Myanmar peace activist Esther Naw.
Naw is under constant surveillance by Yangon’s Special Branch of the police, run by Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs – one of the three ministries under Tatmadaw, or military control.
“They came to my church three times and asked my pastor if he knows me. They show my photo and my name to people. They tell people to tell me to report to the police station for questioning,” she said.
Naw brushes it all off as an intimidation tactic used by the authorities to silence young people in Myanmar, especially those who are ethnically Kachin like her.
“We have to continue talking about peace and nonviolence because it’s been three generations suffering from the civil war. We still have to go on for the development of our nation,” Naw said. “This is our first priority.”
Naw helped organize street protests last April against a military offensive in Myanmar’s Kachin state that displaced 20,000 villagers from their homes.
One hundred and fifty thousand are now living as refugees in Myanmar’s north.
A 17-year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army was broken in 2011. Since then fighting between the two armed groups has continually devastated Kachin and Shan states.
Hundreds of people took to the streets around the country to demand humanitarian access to the displaced villagers, caught in the conflict zone between both warring parties earlier this year.
Forty-seven activists were arrested in Yangon, Mandalay and Myitikina, the capital of Kachin state, where protests began.
“The civil war isn’t only happening in Kachin [state]. It’s happening in peoples’ minds. They use media to spread propaganda. They use police to threaten us. People are afraid to raise their voice and speak up against discrimination,” Naw said.
Myanmar began its democratic transition in 2012 with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament. Three years later, in 2015, her National League for Democracy party took power in the capital, Naypyidaw.
But the NLD government is unwilling to challenge military dominance in Myanmar. The UN has accused the Tatmadaw of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against minorities.
“Even though my family was discriminated against and unfairly targeted because we’re [ethnic] Kachin, and Christian, my people didn’t teach me hatred and told me to work for those being discriminated [against],” Naw said.
Books not Bombs in Burma
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi, once wrote about the need for public libraries to foster a reading culture in Myanmar and give every citizen access to books.
Naw has done this in the refugee camps of the north where no formal educational programs exist. Over the last seven years families have survived, and children have been born, as refugees in their homeland without basic services, deprived of the rights enjoyed by most Burmese.
“I was 17 when I began my activism. The war resumed in Kachin state and I wanted to help my people,” Naw said. “I’ve opened 24 libraries in camps located across Kachin and Shan states. I call it Candle Library Foundation.”
Myanmar’s government wants to shut down the 140 refugee, or internally displaced people (IDP), camps around the country, as recommended by the Kofi Annan Commission. But there’s no plan to allow displaced villagers to return to their homes in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states.
“The international media isn’t allowed to go in. The humanitarian organizations aren’t allowed either. The news is underreported. That is why now I’m thinking about advocating for IDPs at the UN,” Naw said.
Despite being a full-time university student working on her thesis, Naw is committed to building a youth-led peace movement in Myanmar.
“People are proud of anyone who stands up, including Esther. We celebrate any individual who steps up and highlights our suffering. When someone chooses to raise their voice to share what the community is going through, it’s a risk,” said Stella Naw (no relation), Burma Program Officer at Civil Rights Defenders.
“She’s bridging the divide between youth from different ethnic groups,” said David Gyung Hkawng, Youth Pastor at Kachin Baptist Church. “Esther is an activist. She’s really a great young lady. I think one day she will be a great leader.”