Zin Mar Aung is a Burmese civil society and political activist and a former prisoner of conscience. She was born in 1976 in Rangoon.
While a university student in the 1990s, Zin Mar Aung became active in the opposition to Burma’s military government. In 1998, she was arrested at a peaceful protest rally for reading a poem and statement calling on the military government to respect the results of elections. She was detained and convicted before a military tribunal, which did not permit her to be represented by an attorney. Zin Mar Aung was sentenced to 28 years in prison. She spent 11 years as a political prisoner, nearly nine years of which was in solitary confinement. In 2009, she was suddenly released from captivity and she resumed her civil society activities.
Zin Mar Aung has founded a number of civil society groups dealing with democratic development, women’s empowerment, ethnic tolerance, and providing assistance to former prisoners of conscience. The Rainfall group encourages greater women’s participation in public life and the Yangon School of Political Science educates young Burmese about politics and democracy.
In 2012, she was recognized by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a recipient of the annual “International Women of Courage” award.
In our country, there is no written law that discriminates against women, but culturally, like other societies – cultural and socially. So, there’s a lot of barriers to overcome as a woman to be in the public leadership. Even – you know, most – our culture is the most of the women live inside the home and they do not come out in public. So, that is what we are doing to promote the role of women in public and political life. I have two organizations. I’m cofounder of the Yangon School of Political Science and the Rainfall gender studies group.
This group is leading young women to resocialize our society norms and, you know, to resocialize the values and norms that, you know, that have shaped our values and our lives and our freedom. Rainfall is using the CEDAW [Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a United Nations treaty to promote women’s rights] and we do trainings – women’s empowerment trainings based on the CEDAW because even in 1997, our government ratified the CEDAW, but most of the people, you know, do not know what is CEDAW.
So, according to the CEDAW, we have a lot of rights to do and we have, you know, rights to criticize the government, even though they ratified in ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations, a regional economic and political cooperation agreement], but they do not implement yet. So, that is what we can do within the international law and convention and treaty. So, our organization creates awareness on the women’s rights based on CEDAW. And also, the Yangon School of Political Science is giving a training on political activities and not only inside Rangoon but also outside Rangoon, we have the outreach – youth outreach programs to promote youth participation in politics during this transitional period.
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.