Civil Rights Defender of the Year 2020 – Naw Ohn Hla
Human rights defender and democracy activist Naw Ohn Hla has been awarded the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award 2020. She is a leading voice for human rights in Burma – a country where the military rules behind the scenes. Naw Ohn Hla has received the award for her exceptional perseverance in the fight against oppression and for her continued courage to stand up to those in power.
“Democracy activist Naw Ohn Hla is one of the most important human rights defenders in Burma. A grassroots activist for over three decades, she has faced grave risks and made immense personal sacrifices. Nevertheless, she has always stayed true to her cause – the struggle for democracy and human rights. Her deep experience and defiant cheerfulness have made her an invaluable source of guidance and strength for countless others,” said the Board of Directors of Civil Rights Defenders in their motivation statement for the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award 2020.
Press statement in Burmese here.
Three Decades of Activism
For many years, Naw Ohn Hla stood side by side with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then a well-respected icon of the movement for democracy and human rights in Burma. But when Aung San Suu Kyi began to abandon her guiding principles one after another in order to align herself with the narrative of the military, Naw Ohn Hla stood firm and continued to criticise the persecution of ethnic minorities, widespread land grabbing, and systematic violations of women’s rights. To her, the continued struggle for democracy is the only option. She is now one of the few remaining voices who dares challenge her former friend and current leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We have a government that does not see the importance, value, or need of protecting its citizens. We have people who need help from the system, but they are being ignored. Instead, their rights are being violated. We had hopes for the new government, but it has not turned out the way we thought. Under its watch, the problems have grown bigger. There are no institutions that help people like farmers, ethnic minorities, and young girls. That is why someone – people like me – has to fill that gap,” said Naw Ohn Hla to Civil Rights Defenders.
Burma is a country that has been marked by armed conflicts for over half a century. Civil war and violent persecution of ethnic minorities have recently escalated in many parts of the country. In the western state of Rakhine, violence has intensified significantly while journalists and human rights defenders who are trying to report about the situation are increasingly forced or threatened into silence. Many who stand up against human rights violations have been sentenced to long prison terms.
Naw Ohn Hla has been arrested more than 20 times and sentenced to several long prison terms. Still, she refuses to be silenced. She was among the first to openly and sharply criticise the violent persecution of the Rohingya that led to the expulsion of over 700.000 of the Muslim minority population in 2017. Racism against the Rohingya is widespread in Burma – even within the democracy movement – but Naw Ohn Hla is determined to be on the right side of history.
“Naw Ohn Hla is well known for her integrity and her courage to always hold corrupt leaders to account. Despite working in a country where dissidents are persecuted and human rights defenders are arbitrarily imprisoned, she always manages to find a way to overcome fear with courage and cheerfulness. Her personality and deep commitment have inspired generations of human rights defenders in Burma,” said Anders L. Pettersson, Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders.
Acknowledged for Her Never-Ending Dedication to Human Rights
Civil Rights Defenders has awarded the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award every year since 2013. The award enhances the recipient’s human rights work and security by providing international recognition and support to the organisation they represent. With the award, Civil Rights Defenders supports human rights defenders like Naw Ohn Hla who, despite the risk to their own safety, continues the struggle for democracy and human rights.
“I am very grateful and happy to receive this award. What this award reminds us of is that we must do more. But at the same time, it also makes us feel like we have more power and are stronger. The sense of community makes us feel safer,” said Naw Ohn Hla.
Naw Ohn Hla serves as a source of inspiration for many. With warmth and a good sense of humour, she is a mainstay for the younger generation of human rights defenders. Burma is far from democratic, despite the fact that many are tempted to portray it as such after what has been made to look like a democratic election. In fact, human rights violations are escalating, and Burma is moving further away from the dream that Naw Ohn Hla and Aung San Suu Kyi once fought for together. But with activists like Naw Ohn Hla, a hope is ignited for many that real democracy is still possible, and more people dare to take the decisive step of raising their voices.
About Naw Ohn Hla
Naw Ohn Hla has been a vocal promoter of democracy and human rights for more than 30 years. Throughout her career, she has stood up for women’s rights and the rights of ethnic minorities and other discriminated groups. For her critical statements about the military and the government, as well as for her involvement in peaceful protests and demonstrations, she has been arrested and detained many times. For many years, Naw Ohn Hla was part of the same democracy movement as the country’s current and increasingly authoritarian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Today, Naw Ohn Hla is one of the few people who dare to stand up to power and openly criticise the regime.
About the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award
The Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award is an award for outstanding work in defence of civil and political rights. It is awarded every year by Civil Rights Defenders. With the award, we recognise a prominent human rights defender who, despite the risk to their own safety, continues the struggle for civil and political rights.
The award highlights the situation of human rights defenders at risk. It enhances their human rights work by providing international recognition and support to the organisation represented by the award recipient. The award recipient is a person who carries out their work without the use of violence and within an independent human rights organisation or network.
For more information, read our FAQ about the award.
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