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Interviews : Khin Lay

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Khin Lay is a Burmese civil society and political activist. She was born in Yangon in 1971.

She pursued a career in education, hoping to be a university professor. That ambition changed after Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, inspired Khin Lay to take an active role in freeing her country. In 1995, Khin Lay joined Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

As a member of NLD, Khin Lay endured constant surveillance by the regime. In 2000, she was arrested by authorities for her involvement with the party. After five days of interrogation in which she was blindfolded and deprived of sleep, Khin Lay spent four months in Insein Prison, a facility notorious for its deplorable conditions and use of torture. She was released in 2001.

More recently, Khin Lay has focused on strengthening women’s rights and building a more robust civil society. She founded the Triangle Women Support Group, an organization dedicated to empowering Burmese women, developing their political and professional skills, as well as encouraging greater participation in public life. She believes that fostering a new generation of strong, female leaders is a key component to Burma’s democratization. 

After the opening in 2011, we call transition – democratic transition, so civil society roles are becoming bigger and bigger [In 2011, Burmese President Thein Sein began enacting a reform agenda that has eased government restrictions on civil liberty and opened more political space for opposition parties]. But in fact, after the 2008 Nargis cyclone – so most of the young people were very active and energetic to do something for their community. [On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall and caused widespread devastation in Burma. According to official figures, 84,500 people were killed and 53,800 went missing].

At that time, we found out that – firstly, we waited for the international community to come and help and to give the assistance to the victims and also the government. But no way. We didn’t receive any urgent, emergency aid from international community and the government. That’s why most of the young people trying to help and to support for the victims in the Nargis cyclone area. So from that time on, the young people are very active and they usually work as a volunteer service to help and to support the poor people and the needy kids. From that time on, we were very alert and we opened our eyes. We should do by ourselves for the benefit of our people, so not to wait for the outsiders or the government so we should do ourselves.

That’s kind of mentality came from 2008 Nargis, after Nargis. There was a little – very little civil society, we can call community-based organization at the ground level who were actively helping the poor people and some were volunteer teachers for the needy kids. And also there were some funeral services, because – you know, to have a funeral service is very costly in our country. That’s why there are free funeral services associations in our community. And also blood donations.

And there were many – small civil society came out, but they can’t do with high profile. So very low profile and they keep quiet and they did their work very silently. But after the opening in 2011 and 2012, so we take these advantages to widen our space. And we try to do many things. Now, there are thousands and thousands of civil society came out during these two years. And they’re also actively engaged in helping not only the poor people, but also for the needs of our country, like that there are some environmental groups and there are some artist groups. And in every phase there are many active civil society groups came out. 

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

More from Khin Lay

Khin Lay: Cyclone Nargis “After the 2008 Nargis cyclone most of the young people were very active in helping their community.” Khin Lay: Challenges for Burmese Civil Society Khin Lay describes the obstacles facing Burma’s nascent civil society. Khin Lay: Triangle Women's Support Group “Without the development and improvement of women, democracy is nothing.” More + Khin Lay: International Sanctions “We believe lifting sanctions should benefit ordinary people, not the cronies and military officers” Khin Lay: The 1988 Uprising and its Legacy “The whole country would join the protest at the same time on 8/8/88” Khin Lay: Insein Prison “They sent me to an interrogation camp for five days, nonstop investigations without sleep.” Khin Lay: Aung San Suu Kyi “She’s like our second mother.” Khin Lay: Secret Book Clubs “We can share information and learn about it through the book club.” Khin Lay: Internet vs. Radio Khin Lay describes how activists use new and traditional media in Burma Khin Lay: Burma's Opening “Our future depends on us.” Khin Lay: Vision for Burma “Democracy doesn’t come overnight.” Khin Lay: Heroes “If we don’t struggle for our democracy and human rights, the next generation will be worse off.” Khin Lay: What is Freedom “I believe freedom is not needing to fear anybody.” Khin Lay: Message to Dissidents in Burmese Khin Lay’s message to dissidents in Burmese. Khin Lay: Message to Dissidents Khin Lay’s message to Dissidents Khin Lay: Background Khin Lay discusses the roots of her activism.