Inspiring Women of Burma
By The Irrawaddy 19 March 2016
Last week, the world commemorated International Women’s Day, acknowledging the achievements and challenges of half of humanity.
There is no denying that in this country that one woman above all others dominates the national consciousness.
Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys unrivalled stature at home and huge respect abroad. This month she holds the hopes of the nation’s recent voters in her hands as she prepares—from whatever official position—to shepherd her party and the country into unchartered political territory.
It is sometimes forgotten that Burma has always had great female figures who have risen to the challenges of the day to help shape the nation’s social and political life.
In the early 20th century when the country was under colonial rule, women were active in the nationalist movement that culminated in independence in 1948.
More recently, women from all backgrounds and ethnicities have played important roles in the country’s struggles towards democracy and social justice.
Many more have overcome significant barriers to become leaders in the worlds of business, the arts, education and entertainment, among others.
This week the Irrawaddy will revisit some of the women who have featured in our coverage of Burma over the last two decades, and who continue to play a vital part in the transition to a more democratic future.
Each day in the series, we will briefly reprise the careers of three significant women whose past and current activities highlight just a few of the arenas in which female figures are making positive contributions to the nation’s social and political life.
Dr. Ma Thida
Prominent writer Ma Thida is the president and director of the literacy organization PEN Myanmar. A medical doctor, human rights activist and former political prisoner, she is known for her 2012 memoir “Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard.” It is currently being translated into English and could be ready in June of this year.
Although she has written dozens of short stories and articles, one of Ma Thida’s most famous fictional works is “The Roadmap,” which is based on events in Burmese politics from 1988 to 2009. It was translated to English and published in 2011.
In 1993, Ma Thida was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her activism surrounding freedom of expression and was charged with “distributing unlawful literature.” She served over five years in jail, most of which was spent in solitary confinement, before being released in 1999, reportedly due to poor health and political pressure. While she was detained, she received multiple honors in absentia, including the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 1995.
Of the present state of freedom of expression in Burma, Ma Thida said that “we still have to struggle for it.” She hopes that the country can one day “sustain a legal guarantee” for this right.
The 50-year-old author and current editor of Info Digest Journal and Shwe Amyau Tay Magazine remains dedicated to continuing her work for social change.
– By Nyein Nyein
Khin Kyi, Daw Mya Sein and Ludu Daw Amar
An exploration of Burmese history reveals many powerful female figures. From British colonial days to the present day, noteworthy women have held leadership roles in shifting politics and addressing social issues. Below are three prominent figures from the past who now serve as an inspiration for generations women to come.
Despite her popularity for being the wife of Burmese national hero Aung San and the mother of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Kyi is arguably deserving of praise in her own right. Hailing from Myaungmya, an Irrawaddy Delta town, she volunteered for several years as a teacher at a national high school at her native town in late 1920s.
She also worked as a certified nurse in Rangoon General Hospital shortly before World War II hit Burma and helped send the wounded to Calcutta after the Japanese first bombed the city in 1941. The following year, she was the nurse-in-charge in an improvised military hospital in Rangoon. It was there that she met her future husband, Aung San, who was gravely sick and the chief of the Burma Defence Army.
After Aung San’s assassination in 1947, Khin Kyi dedicated herself to social work and became Burma’s first Minister of Social Welfare in 1953. From 1960-67, she served as the ambassador to India—the first female diplomat in Burmese history. She died in Rangoon at the age of 76 with her daughter Aung San Suu Kyi by her side.
Twenty-four years later, Suu Kyi opened a health and education foundation named for her mother. On March 15, 2016, Htin Kyaw, a senior executive of the foundation, was elected Burma’s first civilian president after 50 years of military rule.
Ludu Daw Amar
One of the most influential writers of the post-war era, Daw Amar established herself as a journalist in 1945 with the weekly and daily publication of “Ludu”—The People—a joint effort with her husband U Hla. During Burma’s colonial days, the paper firmly stood for the pro-independence Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. After Burma descended into civil war soon after achieving independence in 1948, Daw Amar and U Hla lobbied for peace. As a result, the couple faced harassment from the government, including suspension of their publication and prison terms. Ludu was shut down by Ne Win’s military regime in 1967.
After the closure of her paper, Daw Amar spent most of her time writing on Burmese culture, crafting memoirs and contributing commentary to local magazines on social change in the Burmese modern society. Daw Amar also published books on Burmese anyeint (traditional theatrical performance) as well as travelogues.
Until her death in 2008, Daw Amar, who once joined a 1936 student strike at Rangoon University to oppose British colonial rule, maintained distance from Burma’s various governments, as she believed them to be successors of Ne Win’s military rule.
Daw Mya Sein
Known as the first Burmese woman to graduate from Oxford in the late 1920s, Mya Sein was also an educator, writer and historian. She led the Burma Women’s Council, served as a representative to the League of Nations in 1931, and to the Burma Roundtable Conference in London in the same year.
From 1950-60, Mya Sein was a lecturer of history and political science at Rangoon University. After her retirement, she became a visiting professor of Burmese history and culture at Columbia University in New York. As a prolific writer, Mya Sein penned many articles on Burma in international publications, notably penning the “Administration of Burma” in 1938, “Burma” in 1944 and “The Future of Burma” also in 1944. She died in 1988 at the age of 84.
– By Kyaw Phyo Tha
Khin Ohmar’s lifetime of political activism began during the pro-democracy student-led uprisings in 1988. In the crackdown that followed, she was forced to leave her homeland and continue her opposition to the military government from the Thai-Burma border.
Presently, Khin Ohmar is a coordinator at the Burma Partnership, a regional advocacy network linking organizations committed to both democracy and ethnic rights in Burma.
In March of this year, she appeared before the UN Human Rights Council and spoke on behalf of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), where she reiterated calls for the release of Burma’s political prisoners and an end to discriminatory policies against religious minorities and human rights abuses in ethnic areas.
“Extensive legislative reform and review is essential for democratic space and a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, civil society organisations and journalists,” she said at the dialogue, at which Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, was also present.
Khin Ohmar is also an outspoken advocate of women’s empowerment. For her work, she has been awarded the Anna Lindh Prize and the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award.
– By Sally Kantar
Nang Lang Kham
Nang Lang Kham is featured for her philanthropic work as the co-founder and chair of the Brighter Future Myanmar Foundation, which supports heath, education, poverty reduction and youth empowerment. The eight-year-old charity was commended for relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis, and more recently for aid delivered after massive floods struck Burma in 2015.
Nang Lang Kham is the executive director of the Kanbawza (KBZ) Group, a business conglomerate founded by her father, Aung Ko Win, who, it should be noted, had close ties to the country’s former military regime.
“I’d like to talk about an empowering culture rather than a policy,” she told The Irrawaddy last year, regarding women’s leadership in business. She has encouraged women’s participation in all sectors of the economy.
She recently joined the third Most Powerful Women International Summit in Hong Kong hosted by Fortune on March 1, 2016.
– By Nyein Nyein
Phyu Phyu Thin
Phyu Phyu Thin is a National League for Democracy (NLD) Lower House lawmaker representing Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township. She also runs the NLD’s HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Centre in Rangoon’s South Dagon Township, a safehouse formed in 2002 for people living with HIV.
The centre is currently caring for nearly 200 patients, including both children and adults, for whom schooling, tuition, mental health support programs and vocational trainings are provided.
The 44-year old lawmaker was jailed several times in the past for her role as an outspoken critic of the military regime and her involvement in campaigns calling for the release of NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi during her detention.
– By Tin Htet Paing
Nang Charm Tong
When she was only six years old, Charm Tong and her family escaped Burma Army offensives in their native Shan State and sought safety on the Thai-Burma border. Ten years later, her work as a activist began, and at 17, she testified on human rights violations in Burma before the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Charm Tong is one of the founding members of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), whose groundbreaking 2001 report “License to Rape” exposed systematic sexual violence by the Burma Army against women in ethnic areas.
Now 35, Charm Tong continues to promote community empowerment and social justice education for young ethnic activists through the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth, of which she has been the director for over 15 years. She often serves as a spokesperson for coalitions of ethnic Shan community-based organizations who fight increased militarization, natural resource exploitation, and continued human rights abuses perpetrated by government troops.
“There is no peace for our people, it is very clear. They [the Burma Army] are continuing their attacks in ceasefire areas. It’s outrageous,” she told The Irrawaddy on day of the signing of Burma’s so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement.
“We want to expose what is happening on the ground,” Charm Tong explained. This has included the displacement of thousands of civilians in central and northern Shan State since December.
Charm Tong is the recipient of multiple honors for her work, including the Student Peace Prize, the Reebok Human Rights Award and inclusion among Time Magazine’s “Asian Heroes.”
– By Sally Kantar
Laphai Seng Raw
A leading humanitarian and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation, Laphai Seng Raw, an ethnic Kachin woman, is also a 2013 awardee of one of Asia’s highest honors: the Ramon Magsaysay Prize.
Seng Raw is currently working with the Irrawaddy Social Association, which organizes community consultations on cultural and environmental awareness and addresses livelihood support among the diverse residents living along Burma’s Irrawaddy River.
The 67-year-old stay-at-home mother turned social worker is today a role model for youth and women. Seng Raw told The Irrawaddy that she welcomes the planned formation of an ethnic affairs ministry by the upcoming government, as was announced by President-elect Htin Kyaw at the Union Parliament on Thursday.
“I think that the creation of the new ministry means the winning party acknowledges the significance of peace building,” she said.
Seng Raw added that she felt inspired by the potential for public power across ethnic lines after witnessing the movement to halt the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State in late 2011.
“We all must collaborate to find solutions to social suffering and to have positive changes under the civilian government, as the wish alone will not bring any achievement,” she said.
– By Nyein Nyein
Than Myint Aung
The award-winning writer Than Myint Aung is also well-known for her activities dedicated to improving living conditions for Burma’s poor, sick and elderly.
She co-founded Rangoon’s Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS) in 2001, which, as the name would suggest, offers funeral services free of charge to those who could not otherwise afford them. Since then, she has helped provide coffins and a dignified burial for thousands of people of various faiths. In addition to this organization, she also runs Thukha Yeik Myone orphanage, a home for children who have lost their parents to HIV. In 2010, she founded the Twilight Villa, which supports elderly people who might otherwise be destitute.
Than Myint Aung has received several literary and humanitarian awards for her philanthropic work. She was also honored with a Citizen of Burma Award from the US-based organization of the same name in 2014.
– By San Yamin Aung
Naw Ohn Hla
Naw Ohn Hla, a long time democracy activist and defender of land rights is currently in prison for leading protests in front of the Chinese embassy demanding justice in the death of farmer Daw Khin Win in late 2014. Daw Khin Win was killed by security forces while protesting the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division.
The 53-year-old ethnic Karen woman was first detained under the military regime, and has been in and out of prison for a decade after demonstrating for the release for political prisoners, notably leading a prayer protest in 2007, and seeking justice in cases of human rights abuse.
Naw Ohn Hla is also a co-founder of the Democracy and Peace Women Network (DPWN), which raises awareness of human rights, land rights and also campaigns against domestic violence. She is also a close friend of current National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker Ma Thandar.
The Rangoon-based DPWN was honored with an N-Peace award, under the category of “Thinking Outside the Box” in October 2014.
– By Nyein Nyein
Shin Daewe is one of the few female documentary filmmakers in Burma’s male-dominated film industry. She has directed more than 15 short documentaries, some of which were screened at international film festivals. The 42-year old documentarian started her film career in 2007 after a workshop at the Yangon Film School, a Berlin-based non-profit organization.
She directed the award-winning 15-minute documentary “Now I am 13” in 2013, which explores the life of a teenage girl from central Burma who could not access educational opportunities due to poverty. The film won the Silver award at the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival and the award for best documentary at Wathann Film Festival in 2014.
Another successful film “Brighter Future” by Shin Daewe tells the story of Phaung Daw Oo monastic education high school in Mandalay, and won best documentary award at a local showcase in 2009, the Art of Freedom Film Festival.
Since Shin Daewe worked as a video journalist from 2005 to 2010 with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), she witnessed the 2007 Saffron Revolution. She also documented student protests against Burma’s National Education Bill last year.
– By Tin Htet Paing
Ethnic Chin activist Cheery Zahau is only 34 but has spent more than a decade advocating for human rights, women’s empowerment, development and peace in Burma’s remote northwestern Chin State. She worked as a volunteer in the Chin Women’s Organization from 1999 to 2004 and later formed Women’s League for Chinland, where she worked until 2009.
Cheery contested the 2015 legislative election, representing the Chin Progressive Party, but lost to an older male NLD candidate in her region. Yet she has not surrendered her political and social influence: Cheery is now working on research which explores challenges facing youth across Burma. She also works with the LGBT advocacy group Colors Rainbow. This year, she plans to deliver vocational training programs that address youth migration in Chin State.
“The role of women and young women in rural areas is always forgotten when we talk about politics and the economic development of our country. Indeed, their income and contributions to their families are important since they make up over 18 million within Burma’s population,” she said.
-By San Yamin Aung
Htoot May has been an active politician since joining the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) more than a decade ago. In the 2015 general election, she won a seat as an Upper House MP representing the Arakan National Party (ANP) in the western state’s Ann and Ramree townships.
She is now working as the secretary of the 16-member Joint Committee for the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in the Union legislature.
Htoot May founded the Htoot May Youth and Educational Foundation this year, and through it, provided scholarships to six young Arakanese women to study English for nine months. She said the organization aims to fund the studies of around 20 young people per year in an effort to improve their capacity; the hope is that these students will then return to their communities and share their knowledge with others.
Htoot May was also one of 18 pioneering figures from Burma to join the Liberty and Leadership Forum hosted by the Bush Institute in 2014.
“I believe the new government will work more for women rights as the ruling party [the National League for Democracy] is led by woman,” she said.
-By San Yamin Aung
Wai Wai Nu
A well-known legal and women’s rights advocate, Wai Wai Nu has become an international voice for the Rohingya, a minority heavily persecuted and denied citizenship by Burma’s government.
“I was born in Arakan State, and also experienced human rights violations like many others. I want to change attitudes toward human rights. I have wanted to work for the development of the society since I was young,” she told The Irrawaddy in November 2015.
It is this experience of rights abuse that motivates her to work for minority rights and gender equality. In 2005, when she was only 18, Wai Wai Nu was arrested—along with her whole family—and sentenced to 17 years in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison. They remained there for seven years, likely targeted for detention because of her father’s political standing; he was an elected parliamentarian in 1990, but the military regime never allowed him to take office. He received the longest sentence—47 years—reportedly for charges of falsifying identification papers. With her own education interrupted by the sentence, in 2014 Wai Wai Nu now refers to prison as her “university about life.”
Wai Wai Nu is the director of the Women’s Peace Network Arakan, which aims to repair and build better relationships between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese peoples of western Burma. She also c0-founded Justice for Women, a legal aid organization. She has been lauded by the White House and the Nobel Women’s Initiative for her work.
-By Sally Kantar
May Sabe Phyu
May Sabe Phyu has been recognized both at home and internationally for her tireless activism.
As co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network, she has continually raised her voice against the ongoing violence between ethnic rebels and the Burma Army in Kachin State. She also founded and serves as director of the Gender Equality Network, which is focused on ending all forms of violence against women.
“Honesty is one kind of courage,” she said, before being awarded the 2015 International Women of Courage Award by US Secretary of State John Kerry for her efforts to promote women’s rights.
“On the one hand, it may look like our society has gained some awareness and accepted equality for women,” she said, “but in reality, that’s not true.”
The mother of three continues her efforts despite facing criticism and personal attacks for her work.
Earlier this year, May Sabe Phyu’s husband, Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail after accusations that he shared a photo on Facebook that was perceived as defamatory to the Burma Army. Both Patrick Khum Jaa Lee and May Sabe Phyu deny the charges against him.
-By Calista MacHarrie
Aye Aye Win
When she retired last August after a 25-year career as a journalist, Aye Aye Win said she had always been proud of her choice of work.
“I will remain a journalist at heart,” the 61-year old said when she announced her retirement.
Aye Aye Win joined the Associated Press in 1989 as a reporter, a time when she was one of few female journalists in Burma. Her work was risky—she saw it as her responsibility to let the world know what was happening inside her country, which was under military rule and maintained strict control over information.
As a result, Aye Aye Win was harassed numerous times by authorities. Her phone line was tapped and she was placed on a government watch list. She was once branded as “stooge of the foreign press” by the state-run newspaper.
Now, more than two decades later, she has served as an inspiration for many female journalists working in Burma. Aye Aye Win is the only living female reporter in the country to have won four major media awards, which have praised her “life-long dedication to honest and courageous journalism.”
– By Kyaw Phyo Tha
Yin Myo Su
As a child, she performed traditional dance for tourists at her family’s small guesthouse in Nyaung Shwe (Yawnghwe), a town on the shores of Inle Lake in southern Shan State.
Now the 44-year old is the managing director of two resorts, one at Inle and another near Arakan State’s ancient kingdom of Mrauk-U. She is also the founder of a hospitality training center in Shan State. Through her Inthar Heritage Foundation, Yin Myo Su has attempted to preserve local ethnic Intha traditions and the natural environment of Inle Lake.
“I believe I inherited the lake from my ancestors, so it’s my responsibility to hand it over to the next generation just as I received it, but with some improvements, like in health and education,” she told The Irrawaddy in 2014. “I understand nothing lasts forever but I don’t want to give it up without a try.”
Yin Myo Su’s work earned her a Global Leadership Award in 2015 for promoting socially and economically responsible development. She was also the recipient of the Goldman Sachs & Fortune Global Women Leaders Award in 2013.
– By Kyaw Phyo Tha
Mi Kun Chan Non
Mi Kun Chan Non has been working for women’s empowerment in Mon State communities for two decades and was honored for these efforts with the N-Peace award in 2014.
Also an advocate for peace, she was one of the “concerned stakeholders” in the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw in January this year.
The vice-chair of the Mon Women’s Organization, she has worked on women’s issues both in the Thai-Burma border areas and within the country.
Pushing for the communities’ acknowledgment of women’s leadership, she urges men “to share a space for those potential women.”
“We women wait for the position to come to us, but we have to ask for it, as we have the capacity and potential to do it,” she told The Irrawaddy this week.
– By Nyein Nyein
Win Win Tint
Win Win Tint, managing director of Burma’s largest retailer, City Mart Holdings, was listed in Forbes Magazine’s Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen in March last year. It was the first time that a Burmese businesswoman had been included in the list.
Win Win Tint took over the family supermarket when she was 21, shortly after she returned to Burma with a degree in business management from Singapore. She struggled to overcome challenges, which included a natural disaster and a bomb blast. She now runs more than 15 large outlets including hypermarkets in Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw.
She was recognized as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in 2013 and was also a runner-up for the Women Entrepreneur Award of the 2014 ASEAN Business Awards.
If supermarkets and convenience stores are some of the most obvious emblems of 21st century living, Win Win Tint has to be one of Burma’s most visible modernizers.
-By San Yamin Aung
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi first became a household name after her involvement in Burmese politics in the wake of 1988 popular uprising, partly because she is the daughter of Burma’s national hero Gen Aung San.
Twenty-eight years later—including 15 years under house arrest—and as the chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD), she has earned the people’s trust as someone who can bring them change politically, socially and economically.
Despite a constitutional clause banning her from the presidency, it is taken for granted that 71-year old Suu Kyi is the major driver of the new government that will take office on Apr 1. To this end, Suu Kyi has repeatedly stated that she would be “above the president.” Following the election, she held separate meetings with President Thein Sein and the Burma Army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who promised to facilitate a smooth transition. Suu Kyi also met with former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who referred to her as the country’s “future leader.”
– By Kyaw Phyo Tha
Nang Phyu Phyu Lin
Nang Phyu Phyu Lin, an ethnic Shan and Kachin woman from Taunggyi, the Shan State capital, has been an advocate for women’s empowerment, gender equality and human rights for more than a decade.
The current chair of the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in Peace Process (AGIPP), which works with eight peace-building and women’s organizations in Burma, is a human rights trainer and also a leading facilitator. She was a female facilitator at the Union Peace Conference.
As a working mother with a five-year-old daughter, she stresses the need for working mothers to have family support—from her husband, parents and in-laws. This, she maintains, is vital for success at work.
As a facilitator and an advocate of women’s leadership, Nang Phyu Phyu Lin supports at least a 30 percent quota of women at the decision making level. She said that challenges presented by men, who refer to them as “30 percent, little girls,” motivate her to stay in the movement, and reinforce her commitment to equality.
She also acknowledges positive developments achieved through activism, believing that “our efforts are improving [the situation for women] gradually as time passes.”
– By Nyein Nyein
Su Su Lwin
The current chair of the Lower House’s International Relations Committee, NLD lawmaker Su Su Lwin has been a member of union parliament since the 2012 by-election. She was also a member of the International Relations Committee in her previous term as an MP.
Su Su Lwin is the head of the NLD’s education committee. She was a leader in drafting of the controversial National Education Bill, which in March 2015 resulted the student protests nationwide.
Her father, U Lwin, was a former colonel in the army as well as a leading figure in the NLD. Due to her family’s support for the democracy movement, they were faced with house arrest and endured closed surveillance under military rule.
The former educator has a Master’s degree in English and has also worked with UNICEF. She has twice represented Rangoon’s Thone Kwa Constituency in Parliament, and is the wife of Htin Kyaw, the NLD’s leading presidential nominee.
– By Nyein Nyein
Khin Ma Ma Myo
Khin Ma Ma Myo is an outspoken advocate on the importance of gender equality and women’s involvement in Burma’s peace process.
She is the founder and executive director of the Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security Studies (MIPSS), which facilitates peace and reconciliation courses in Burma. She is also the director of the Women, Peace and Security Initiative and a member of the Board of Directors of the Parliament Support Group.
Khin Ma Ma Myo also joined Burma’s Union Peace Conference in January as one of the “concerned stakeholders.”
She studied politics, economics and governance at universities in Japan and the United Kingdom, and is highly experienced as a lecturer, an expert on government and politics and as a researcher on international security studies. She has written several pieces concerning gender and peace issues.
– By Tin Htet Paing
Phyoe Phyoe Aung
A student leader currently standing trial for her involvement in nationwide protests against the National Education Law, Phyoe Phyoe Aung was arrested on March 10 during the police crackdown on student demonstrators camped at a monastery in Letpadan, Pegu Division.
The 27-year-old general-secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), alongside her husband Lin Htet Naing, a fellow student activist, has been slapped with five charges and faces a maximum sentence of 9.5 years for her participation in the Letpadan protest. She had earlier spent more than three years in prison for her efforts to reconvene the ABFSU during the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung said that the current government is prosecuting more student protesters even as the international community and local advocacy groups have raised pressure on outgoing President Thein Sein to release all political prisoners unconditionally.
“The government is going to leave many unsolvable problems to the incoming government. They are purposely making our case more complicated,” she told The Irrawaddy in February.
More than 70 other demonstrators remain in Tharawaddy Prison on charges relating to the education protests.
-By Sally Kantar
Nan Khin Htwe Myint
An elected member of the Karen State parliament in the November 2015 election, Nan Khin Htwe Myint is also a central executive committee member of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Most recently, she has been tipped for the state chief minister post for Karen State.
The dedicated 62-year-old politician was first detained when she was only 19 years old, then imprisoned multiple times throughout the past four decades, including stints in Insein and Moulmein prisons.
A daughter of Dr. Saw Hla Tun, the former head of Karen State, through family discussions Nan Khin Htwe Myint fostered a homegrown knowledge of federalism, political and ethnic history. Under Burma’s military rule, her family was targeted for persecution for their political ties.
Today, she is an heir to her father’s work for ethnic rights and equality.
“I continue working in the political field as I am dedicated to establishing my country as a federal-base democratic nation,” Nan Khin Htwe Myint told The Irrawaddy this week.
She urges women to participate more in politics, as she feels “women are more tolerant and capable of dealing with challenges.”
“It is important that you make yourselves ready by increasing capacity and skills to contribute whenever needed,” she said.
– By Nyein Nyein
Dr. Chit Thu Wai
Burmese celebrity Chit Thu Wai recently reached out to people displaced in central Shan State, where the Burma Army launched an offensive against the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North. She visited the camps in December of last year and is hoping to return.
Keeping in mind the concept of “We Love, We Care, We Share,” Chit Thu Wai told The Irrawaddy that she “just wants to fill the gaps wherever there are needs, such as compassion, strength, money or arts, especially in the camps.”
As an actress, a vocalist and a doctor, she has initiated a hygiene awareness program, promoting disease prevention through hand-washing with soap. She represented Burma at last year at the UN General Assembly as a Hand-washing Ambassador.
A core supporter of the National League for Democracy, she actively participated in the election campaign last November.
– By Nyein Nyein
Dr. Cynthia Maung
In the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, Dr. Cynthia Maung left Karen State and opened her clinic in a dirt-floor building on the Thai-Burma border. Today the Mae Tao Clinic she founded boasts a staff of 700 and sees over 75,000 patients per year concerning issues ranging from landmine injuries to childbirth to HIV counseling.
Today, Dr. Cynthia, as she is widely known, is a strong advocate of a decentralized and community-based health care structure in Burma’s ethnic states.
“To establish a good and effective health care system in the ethnic regions, it is very necessary that the government reduces its centralized policy as much as they can,” she told The Irrawaddy in February 2015. “They should mandate ethnic health organizations and workers in managing health programs in ethnic regions.”
Dr. Cynthia also uses her influence to encourage Western countries, when creating policy and allocating funding,not to desert the refugees and communities internally displaced by Burma’s long-running civil war.
She is the recipient of 14 international awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize, the Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award, and the Magsaysay Award.
– By Sally Kantar
Devoted human rights defender Nilar Thein is currently being held in Insein Prison for her role in a protest one year ago in support of students who demanded education reform. She was charged under the controversial Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law for allegedly demonstrating without permission from the authorities.
It is not her first time in jail. Throughout the 1990s, Nilar Thein was at the forefront of efforts to combat oppression and promote democracy in Burma; she was imprisoned for these activities for more than ten years under the former ruling military junta.
Now a secretary of Women’s Affairs with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, Nilar Thein has said that she would like to focus her work on women’s development.
“There is still a lot of work needed to enhance women’s knowledge from the grassroots, to encourage them to ask for their rights themselves, to let them know there are laws that can protect them and to include themselves to make those laws effective,” she told The Irrawaddy in 2014.
– By San Yamin Aung
After 35 years practicing law in Mon State, Thanbyuzayat Township MP Tin Ei has become the first and only female speaker of one of Burma’s regional parliaments.
The vibrant 70-year-old who persistently championed democracy says she will use her position to encourage legal reform in Mon State. She is currently reviewing the laws enacted by the state’s previous legislature and assessing why others did not pass.
“Law is not for the ruler—the laws must be able to make the public comfortable and protect their bodies and their lives,” she told The Irrawaddy last month.
An NLD veteran since 1988, Tin Ei’s first parliamentary campaign was contesting the 1990 election, but she lost to a candidate from the Mon National Democratic Front.
She sees the new NLD government as an opportunity to change the system as well as the public mindset.
“We have to change our mindset, and live in accordance with a democratic system,” she said.
-By Yen Snaing
Zin Mar Aung
Before she became an elected lawmaker with the National League for Democracy in last year’s election, Zin Mar Aung was well known for having spent 11 years behind bars as a human rights activist.
The 40-year-old who is now sitting in the Lower House of Parliament representing Rangoon’s Yankin Township, also serves as a member of the same house’s Public Affairs Administration Committee.
In one of her first debates within the parliament she urged the government to review its drug eradication program, pointing out that in some parts of the country, ‘‘there is no electricity, but drugs are easily available.’’
She is known for her outspoken criticism of a controversial law restricting interfaith marriages, a stance for which extreme nationalists sent her hate mail and death threats.
“The proposal was unacceptable because it was based on extreme nationalism and religious extremism. It interfered with individual freedoms and particularly with the personal choices of women,” she said.
Zin Mar Aung is a co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science. She has also founded an organization titled Rainfall to encourage greater women’s participation as the country moves toward democracy.
Thanks to her long time devotion to human rights, Zin Mar Aung was selected as an International Woman of Courage in 2012 and as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in 2014.
-By San Yamin Aung
Long before she made headlines for seeking justice in relation the death in military custody of her husband Par Gyi in 2014, Ma Thandar was a leading political activist.
She was known especially for fighting on justice, women rights and land grabbing issues, along with her fellow activists who co-founded the Women and Peace Network.
Ma Thandar’s victory in last year’s general election has taken her to the Lower House as a lawmaker, and last month she also became a member of the Citizens’ Fundamental Rights Committee.
She is hopeful about the possibilities her new positions may open up.
“I believe I will get more opportunities now, including to collaborate with the Home Affairs and Justice ministries, and the judiciary, to push for citizen’s rights,” she told The Irrawaddy.
Though two soldiers initially implicated in her husband’s death were acquitted by a military tribunal, Ma Thandar’s call for answers on the case prompted the army to make an unprecedented statement admitting the journalist had been shot in custody.
During her appeal for her husband’s justice, she said: “If justice can be done for my husband, the truth may also be revealed for others who were killed unnoticed like him, and we can prevent this from being repeated.”
-By Kyaw Phyo Tha
Ja Nan Lahtaw
Ja Nan Lahtaw is one of only a handful of women privy to the inner workings of the peace process.
The director of the Nyein Foundation, a long-time local development organization that also operates as a peace facilitation group, she is among a small cadre of professionals working as technical advisors to the process.
The Nyein Foundation is also known as ‘‘Shalom’’ and is based in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina.
For her activities Ja Nan has been the recipient of a number of international honors including a prestigious N-Peace Award, which she received last year.
Born in Myitkyina in 1965, Ja Nan was schooled abroad before she returned home and followed in the footsteps of her predecessors. The Nyein Foundation was established by her father, a reverend and former director general of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), who along with his brother was a key broker of the 1994 ceasefire between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Ja Nan has said that peace brokering is “something of a family tradition.”
– By Nyein Nyein