It’s been more than a decade since Zoya Phan, fleeing persecution by the Burma Army, sought and gained asylum in Britain, but the activist says her fight for human rights and democracy in the Southeast Asian nation continues from afar. The London-based campaign manager of Burma Campaign UK, Zoya Phan joined the organization after attending university in the United Kingdom. Her studies followed years as a refugee along the Thai-Burma border.
The author of “Little Daughter,” a memoir of her childhood experiences and struggles, became a British citizen last year and exercised her right to vote for the first time on May 7 in the UK general election.
Zoya Phan also leads the Phan Foundation, established in memory of her late father Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, an ethnic Karen National Union (KNU) leader who was assassinated in 2008. In this interview, the rights campaigner shares with The Irrawaddy her experience casting a ballot for the first time, thoughts on Burma’s reform process and hopes for the future.
Could you share what Burma Campaign UK is doing currently in relation to your country of birth?
Some of our current campaign activities are for a stronger British policy on Burma, the release of all political prisoners, aid to Burma, the crises in Arakan, Kachin and Shan states, and to end the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war by the Burma Army.
We expose human rights abuses by the Burmese government. We lobby the British Parliament and governments all over the world to do more to promote human rights in Burma. We generate worldwide media coverage, ensuring the world does not ignore the crisis in Burma and our campaigns have ensured life-saving aid has reached those in ethnic areas after attacks by the Burma Army.
The current UK government has supported the Burmese government despite campaign group like yours urging a more critical approach, given ongoing human rights abuses in Burma. Do you expect a continuation of this policy after the ruling Conservative Party triumphed again this month?
It is disappointing that the British government prioritizes trade and business more than the promotion of human rights and democracy. My organization Burma Campaign UK will continue to highlight the ongoing human rights situation in Burma, and to seek support from parliamentarians across party lines to press for a stronger Burma policy from the British government.
Tell me about your experience as a first-time voter in the recent UK parliamentary elections.
I was thrilled to be able to vote in the UK general election. The UK provides me with the rights that any other citizens have, including the right to vote, and I am grateful for that. Being able to vote means so much to me as it provides me with a new experience in a free and democratic society.
However, deep down in my heart, I want to go home and it is in my homeland in Burma that I want to be able to vote and choose the government that I want. Being an activist in exile and campaigning for human rights for my homeland makes it impossible for me to vote in Burma, because the country is still under authoritarian rule. Under Burma’s undemocratic Constitution, even those who can vote can’t genuinely choose the government that they want.
What is your opinion of the current changes in Burma and peace talks between ethnic armed groups—the Karen National Union being one of the biggest—and the government?
In my view, the changes in Burma so far are superficial, which were designed by the military to ease domestic and international pressure, to be able to legalize their rule with a civilian guise.
The Thein Sein government is not interested in solving the conflicts in ethnic areas. His ultimate goal is for ethnic political groups to surrender under the military Constitution and he uses ceasefire as a public relation exercise. Having a ceasefire alone, without a genuine political solution, is like pressing a pause button, not a stop button, to the conflict.
Ethnic people want real peace and a federal democratic system that guarantees freedom and equality. Not a Constitution that implements a death sentence for ethnic diversity.
With you having visited the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, what do the changes in Burma mean for these people?
People in refugee and IDP camps are still unable to go home because Burma Army soldiers remain in their villages, which was the reason they first had to flee. They told me, for their safe return, there needs to be the withdrawal of the Burmese military, landmine clearance and social security, such as health and education infrastructure. Most of all, people want to go back to their homes and rebuild their community. They don’t want to return to Burma in a special economic zone as cheap labor.
Burma’s is still a military-backed government. The undemocratic Constitution and repressive laws remain in place, the number of political prisoners has increased, human rights violations by the state have increased in many ethnic areas, including murder, rape and sexual violence against women, torture and detention of innocent farmers, the obstruction of aid for IDPs [internally displaced persons], the ongoing military offensive and many more.
What role do you see yourself playing in future, as an ethnic minority from Burma but also as the daughter of a revered Karen leader?
My dream of Burma is where everyone is treated equally with human rights and dignity, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, religion and social background. This is what both my parents were fighting for: freedom for the Karen and for all in Burma. I would like to continue being involved in this struggle and try my best to work toward this goal in whatever role I can play.
Could you tell us about the Phan Foundation and its mission?
Following the assassination of my father Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan in 2008, my brothers, sister and I set up the Phan Foundation in his memory and in memory of our mother Nant Kyin Swe. I am a director of the group. The Phan Foundation aims to support the Karen people in alleviating poverty, providing education, promoting human rights and protecting Karen culture.
We continue our parents’ dedicated work in the community by providing financial support for grassroots organizations in their social activities. We also give the Padoh Mahn Sha Young Leader Award to an outstanding young Karen leader every year with a grant of $2,000 to provide practical support for the winner.
If you are allowed to return to Burma, what would you like to do and where would you like to go?
I would like to go back to my home village in Manerplaw, eastern Burma. But sadly, all those villages in that area are all gone now after being bombed by the Burma Army. I would also like to go to the Irrawaddy [Delta], where both my parents were from, and set up libraries and education centers in memory of my parents, as they were both very keen on education for young people.