Kyaw Hla Aung speaking to media at Tsitsernakaberd (photo Aram Arkun)

Rohingya Human Rights Activist and 2018 Aurora Prize Laureate Kyaw Hla Aung Honored in Yerevan

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YEREVAN — Despite the tragic nature of its focus, this year’s Aurora Forum had many uplifting and even joyful moments. One took place on October 16 at the bright and modern-looking Kamar Business Center, where a new postage stamp by Armenia’s official postal operator HayPost featuring Kyaw Hla Aung, the 2018 Aurora Prize Laureate, was cancelled with the participation of Aung, Minister of High Tech Industry Hakob Arshakyan, 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate and chair of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative Dr. Tom Catena, HayPost Executive Board member Arayik Abrahamyan, and President of the Union of Philatelists of Armenia Hovik Musayelyan.

This was the third year that cooperation among the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, Haypost, and the Ministry of High-Tech Industry of the Republic of Armenia has led to the issuance of a commemorative stamp. Attached to it is a donation coupon for 150 dram. HayPost transfers the 150-dram donations to the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative to help support humanitarian projects in 15 countries. The stamp designer each year has been Aurora Humanitarian Initiative member Alla Mingalyova.

From left, President of the Union of Philatelists of Armenia Hovik Musayelyan, 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate and chair of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative Dr. Tom Catena, Kyaw Hla Aung, Minister of High Tech Industry Hakob Arshakyan, and HayPost Executive Board member Arayik Abrahamyan participate in the stamp ceremony (photo Aram Arkun)

Catena at the ceremony declared to the audience, including a large number of journalists, “The beauty of this stamp is that this stamp will now go all over the world, as you can imagine, and people will see that. This will help raise awareness about the plight of the Rohingya people and will make them ask questions…” Aurora co-founders Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan briefly spoke about the goal of the Aurora Forum to both give Armenia strength and give some strength back to the world, with Armenia turning into a platform or center of innovation and discussion.

Prior to the ceremony, Aung visited the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute and Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd and also planted a tree in the garden which is identified with a plaque bearing his name.

Aung spoke briefly on several occasions during the day about the situation of the Rohingya. The 79-year-old lives in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) near his native city of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Even coming to Yerevan is a very difficult task for him. He said that he had to apply to various Myanmar state offices, then go to the capital of Yangoon, and again provide documentation and explanation of where he is going and why. The process took over a month.

Kyaw Hla Aung signing the guestbook at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (photo Aram Arkun)

Aung said, “I don’t know why Aurora selected me but I am working for human beings since 1962, when our Myanmar government was caught [in a coup] by General Ne Win. At that time, the Myanmar government also [began] discriminating against Muslims and Christians there in our country. Since then, I am working for human beings, to get equality.”

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Aung had begun working in 1960 as a state court clerk in Sittwe, when Rohingya, who are Muslims, still could hold high positions in the government, military, police and society. Over the next few decades, discrimination against them increased so that they no longer could be appointed to such positions, while Rohingya in office were made to retire.

In August 2017, the campaign against the Rohingya culminated in a violent military-led attack which is called ethnic cleansing or genocide by international authorities and academics. Over 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain to this day (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/world/asia/rohingya-myanmar-repatriation.html). Several hundred thousand Rohingya had preceded them as refugees from prior smaller waves of communal violence, while 128,000 were estimated to be internally displaced refugees in Rakhine state in July 2018 according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Violence continues in Myanmar against the Rohingya.

Seeing much injustice during his work, Aung studied to become a lawyer from 1982 and in his first case in 1986, appealed the confiscation of land from a group of Rohingya farmers. He was arrested for obstructing state projects and only released in 1988. He founded the National Democratic Party for Human Rights, to help legally restore the Rohingya’s to equality, but again was arrested and sentenced in 1990 to 14 years in prison. Released in 1997, he was detained in 2012 for two months by the police, and in 2013 arrested and held for 15 months, until being granted amnesty.

Ruben Vardanyan addresses the audience (photo Aram Arkun)

Aung said that at present, “People are still living in Sittwe in IDP camps. The [UN Advisory Commission on Rakhine] Kofi Annan report said that they have to construct individual houses. But [this is] not yet done…They are lying across the wall that they have done everything according to the Kofi Annan report.” Aung said he met four times with Annan while this report (http://www.rakhinecommission.org/the-final-report/) was being prepared.

He continued: “There are Rohingya still living in their homes too, in Myanmar, but we are threatened. We cannot also hope for our lives. They can at any time attack us.” The Rohingya fear being killed or expelled like their brethren in Bangladesh.

When asked whether the latter can continue to stay there for long, he replied emphatically, “No, no, no. They are facing very [great] hardships to keep staying in that country [Bangladesh].” Human trafficking is taking place there, he said.

Though the refugees were from Myanmar, Aung said, the Myanmar government had refused to issue them birth certificates or certificates of nationality for some 30 to 40 years now, despite recriminations from international governments. A citizenship law in 1982 excluded the Rohingya as an ethnic group.

Aung said of the solution that “it depends on the UN, Myanmar and Bangladesh. No other can be involved in this case and no other can do [it]. The UN can persuade the Myanmar government to accept all these citizen Rohingya. Since 1948, all the governments in Myanmar accept that these people are citizens of Myanmar. Now they are denying [it]. This is not logical. This is not acceptable.”

Aung added, “Bangladesh is a very small country and very populated. Also, the monsoon rains are starting always and it is very difficult for Bangladesh to control these refugees…The UN has to solve this problem but the UN is very weak, I saw.” He exclaimed, “You can also tell this, my answer to the UN. I dislike UN work!”

He noted resistance to strong UN intervention as a factor, stating, “But some countries are also objecting for this – for example, China and Russia.  Due to their objections, the UN cannot work for the Rohingya people.”

He felt international organizations are powerless under the circumstances. He said, “They cannot do anything because it depends on the United Nations. Amnesty International is working for that and Fortify Rights [https://www.fortifyrights.org/]. They are reporting everything to the United Nations but the United Nations did not do a good job for the Rohingya people. I don’t know why they are afraid of these two countries [China and Russia].”

Aung said that he was very happy about being selected as the Aurora Laureate. In Myanmar, he said, “I explained to them that Armenia is a very small country but now it is doing humanitarian works through this Aurora.”

“After getting this Aurora prize,” Aung said, “I am working hard. I can travel here, and help these Aurora Humanitarian Initiative members…I can see human beings of different religions and different human things and different countries. They are doing [this] for all human beings. I can share to my people what the Armenians are doing for Aurora.” He concluded that “people around the world come to know that Aurora is doing a good job for humanity.”

 

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