Thet Swe Win (Local Human Rights Tulip Winner 2019) - Freedom of religion and belief


Thet Swe Win became known throughout Myanmar in 2006, when he stood up for a Muslim seller who was forced by monks to stop selling snacks at the Shwedagon Pagoda pilgrimage site. Following the incident, he started a fundraiser for the seller. Ultimately, this led Thet Swe Win to found Synergy: an organisation that strives to foster social harmony in Myanmar and focuses on the promotion of interfaith harmony in particular.

‘We have to shape the future we want to leave for the next generations, and that future starts with us. What kind of society do we want to leave for them? I see a society where discrimination based on identity is overcome and people live in full dignity and security.’ – Thet Swe Win

The Myanmar context

Myanmar faces multiple ongoing conflicts between the military and various armed groups, many of which have been formed around notions of ethnicity, identity and citizenship. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have suffered episodes of violence over many years and face restrictions on citizenship status and on rights such as freedom of movement. In August 2017, violence in Rakhine State forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee their homes for neighbouring Bangladesh. In its 2018 report, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that the Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In 2019, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation and proceedings have been instituted against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice. Tensions increased further in Rakhine State in 2019, with the escalation of a conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an armed group made up predominantly of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. The crisis in Rakhine State, together with intensified conflict in other states, continues to pose a serious threat to the country’s fragile peace process.

Roses in answer to religious tension

White roses are a symbol of compassion, tolerance and peace. After a mob prevented Muslims in South Dagon, a township of Yangon, from holding Ramadan prayers, Thet Swe Win and his organisation Synergy started a white rose campaign. The mostly Buddhist activists who joined were inspired by a monk who appeared in the township the day after the incident, to hand out white roses to Muslims after their prayers. After the white rose campaign, a panel discussion was held with participants including Thet Swe Win. They discussed preventing religious tensions, violence and living in harmony with each other.

Human Rights Tulip Award

The Dutch ambassador to Myanmar, Wouter Jurgens, had the honour of announcing the Myanmar winners of the 2019 Human Rights Tulip. Thet Swe Win received the award for his outstanding work to bridge divides with his human rights advocacy. ‘He has demonstrated that they can step over the boundaries of their own communities and build bridges. We need voices and human rights defenders who can reconcile differences and heal traumas in Myanmar’s transition to peace and democracy. We commend Thet Swe Win for his compassion and consistent advocacy for the rights of others in a society in which tolerance and inclusion are not a given,’ said the Ambassador in 2019. Thet Swe Win believes that the 2019 Myanmar Human Rights Tulip has encouraged him to work towards such a society. ‘I consider this not only an award for myself but for my fellow human rights defenders across the country. I hope that many more young activists will receive this award in the future.’