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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. 

Before we went to jail – for being an NLD member [the main Burmese opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)], we were under surveillance. We were ever threatened by the authorities. As one of the examples, I’d like to show you is – I don’t have my own apartment so I need to rent from the landlord. Every year I sign the contracts. But when the authorities found out that I’m going to rent the apartment from the landlord so they pressured the landlord not to lend me because I’m an NLD member. There would be many problems. Your house will be sealed off or something like that.

They gave much pressure. And these pressures, we were trying to survive ourselves. And in 2000, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi planned to go to Mandalay [Burma’s second largest city], so we know very well that this plan was not successful, but as one of the action of the nonviolence – how can I say – political actions that we like to create such kind of movement. So I organized some of the events to be successful in her trip. So they found out that; they arrested one of my colleagues. He was going ahead to plan for the trip. So he got arrested outside of Yangon [former Burmese capital also known as Rangoon]. And he found out – the authorities found out that there was a – names and phone numbers of me. He would contact me and through I would contact The Lady [Aung San Suu Kyi’s nickname], like that. So when the authorities found out like that, they liked me to get – at the night before I got arrested.

But luckily, at that night I didn’t stay at my house at that night. I sleep at my friend’s house so I escaped. They came to arrest me at my house at midnight. But luckily, I escaped at that time. But the next day, in the afternoon, about 40 young people went to the Yangon railway station to greet our leader (Aung San Suu Kyi) to say goodbye, so we – at that time, we were standing on the pavement on the Yangon railway station. So the authorities and the military intelligence came and – with a truck. And they arrested all of us – all of the members and put into the – in Insein prison [a prison notorious for its dirty conditions and use of mental and physical torture].

So this is why they arrested us. And again, and why firstly they sent me to the interrogation camp for five days, nonstop investigations without having a rest and without sleeping. But they gave me some food to eat and they closed my eyes with a cloth [blindfold]. And even though – if I wanted to go to the restroom, they closed my eyes and they helped me to get to the restroom, like that. After five days’ interrogation, I was sent again to the Insein prison. And I spent four months in Insein prison at that time. At that time, we were in a – how you can say that – in a dark age. There was no significant civil society at that moment. We were not allowed to set up the civil society at that moment. So everyone was afraid of military intelligence.

So even our close relatives, they didn’t dare to contact me because, you know, being engaged in politics is like a cause or something like that. They always stayed away from us. So it’s – because, you know, the regime also threatened and gave some of the lessons not to help the activists, so that’s why more and more people were afraid of being engaged with a political activists and human rights activists.

There’s no way that – although we are – by myself, I was never afraid of the authorities or if they – when I decided to join NLD [the main Burmese opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)], I decided myself that at least I shall go in jail or I shall die, there’s two ways, because, you know, being an NLD member or being an activist is very, you know – very risky things at that moment. There is two, just only two ways: go to jail or die, shot by the military, there’s two ways. That’s why I made up my mind that – to prepare for the worst and try – hope for the best. 

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 on this theme from Khin Lay

Khin Lay: Insein Prison “They sent me to an interrogation camp for five days, nonstop investigations without sleep.”

Other videos from Khin Lay

Khin Lay: Triangle Women's Support Group “Without the development and improvement of women, democracy is nothing.” Khin Lay: Aung San Suu Kyi “She’s like our second mother.” Khin Lay: What is Freedom “I believe freedom is not needing to fear anybody.” More + 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. More +