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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. 

I come from a business family background. So my parents were businessmen before the 1988 students uprising [a protest that began when students clashed with the military over the regime’s economic policies]. After the 1988 uprising, the economic situation is totally different from the past. That’s why our life changed, not only in politics, but also in business. So, firstly, I intended to be a lecturer in a university. That’s why I studied to get a master’s degree in physics in Yangon University, an arts and science university. Now, recently Mr. President [Barack] Obama [44th President of the United States] came and gave a speech at that university [President Obama visited Burma in November 2012]. And after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was first released in 1995, we usually went and listened to her speeches [Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the main Burmese opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). She led the NLD to victory in the 1990 elections, but the military government ignored the results and put her under house arrest. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991].

She made a public speech in front of her friends every Saturday and Sunday. So after listening to her speeches again and again, I was really inspired and motivated to do politics in person. Previously, our family is a strong supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As you know, that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of our independence hero, General Aung San. So we love her very much. Her father passed away when she was two years old, so we are very passionate for her and her family. That’s why we love her. As I said before, that after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was first released in 1995, we listened to her talk publicly.

And I was really inspired and motivated to join NLD. But at that time, I was studying for my master’s degree. So after I finished my studies, I joined NLD full-time. But there is another reason I joined is that, firstly, I just attend and join and listened to the book club and many other activities they usually did in The Lady’s [Aung San Suu Kyi’s nickname] yard and headquarters. But I didn’t join full-time. But after 1997 and 1998, there was a, we call, operation. Thousands of NLD members got arrested, because, you know, at that time, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced that – they were called the people parliament [Committee Representing the People’s Parliament – a coalition of opposition forces] – if the authority didn’t recognize the result of the 1990 election, she would make some of the people parliament or some other activities if the government didn’t do it in time.

So from after this statement, most of the NLD members were arrested. So at that time, there were very few members who worked in headquarters, NLD headquarters. That’s why we decided, I and others, some of my colleagues decided to join NLD to work as a full-time volunteer. 

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: Background Khin Lay discusses the roots of her activism.

Other videos from Khin Lay

Khin Lay: Triangle Women's Support Group “Without the development and improvement of women, democracy is nothing.” 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.” More + 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 More +