Freedom of religion and belief – Thet Swe Win, Local Human Rights Tulip Winner 2019

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.’

Human Rights Tulip

Freedom of religion and belief

Everyone should have the right to make their own religious or non-religious choices. This includes the right not to believe and to change one’s religion or belief. The Netherlands makes no distinction between different religions or beliefs. Unfortunately, however, there is growing intolerance around the world in this regard. More than three quarters of the world's population live in countries with limited freedom of religion and belief. For this reason, this is a key part of the Netherlands’ foreign human rights policy; it is one of our six human rights priorities.

Human rights

Human rights are rights that apply worldwide, to all people, in all places, at all times. They protect the dignity of every human being. You have human rights because you are human,  regardless of your gender, ethnicity, religion or political opinion. The Netherlands strives to protect and promote human rights all over the world. This is a priority of the Dutch government’s foreign policy. The Netherlands employs a wide array of actions and initiatives geared towards strengthening six fundamental human rights:  freedom of expression and internet freedom, freedom of religion and belief, equal rights for LGBTI people, equal rights for woman and girls, and promoting the international rule of law and combating impunity. These efforts are intended to uphold your right to express your opinion. To live your life, if you’re different. To adhere to your own religion. To go to school if you’re a girl. Human rights will thrive if we stand up for them, together with many other countries. By supporting local organisations. By not letting violations go unpunished. By incorporating human rights into trade treaties. By continuing to defend them.

Human Rights Tulip

The Dutch government supports human rights defenders and organisations. With the Human Rights Tulip, the Netherlands provides recognition and visibility for the winners and emphasises the legitimacy and importance of their work as human rights defenders. Each year, the Dutch government awards the Human Rights Tulip to a person or organisation that promotes human rights worldwide in innovative ways. The winner receives a bronze sculpture and €100,000. This money allows them to continue and expand their work. The prize money comes from the Human Rights Fund.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders are individuals or organisations that seek to protect human rights. Through their work they promote and defend globally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms by peaceful means. They are able to generate change and improve the lives of many, but they often have to contend with serious threats and violence. The Netherlands supports human rights defenders so they can continue their invaluable work effectively and safely. Their voices and their stories must be heard. They are audacious people from different countries, walks of life, and backgrounds. They can be local leaders, journalists, lawyers, environmental activists, or many other things. But they have one conviction in common: that freedom is fragile, and universal rights need protection.
  • Read about the candidates for the Human Rights Tulip 2020 here.
  • Read about other examples of previous winners of the Human Rights Tulip here.