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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Khin Ohmar

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Interviewed August 2010

Khin Ohmar is a Burmese democracy activist who lives and works in Mae Sot, Thailand. She is a leader of the Women’s League of Burma, the main umbrella organization for women’s organizations in exile and inside Burma.

Khin has served as a spokesperson for the Burmese democracy movement in the United Nations General Assembly and in other international forums. She also serves as coordinator of the Burma Partnership, a regional coalition of civil society groups supporting democracy in Burma, and she is an organizer of the ASEAN civil society and human rights consultation processes.

Admitted to the United States as a refugee after being persecuted for her participation in the 1988 student demonstrations, Khin became a United States citizen and worked for refugee and human rights organizations in Washington, D.C., before moving back to the Thai-Burma border area in the late 1990s. 

While I was studying as a university student back in Burma, 22 years ago, I had come to witness the brutality and the violence by the ruling socialist government at that time against the students who were doing peaceful demonstrations. I think it was already in my blood as a person. For me, whenever I see some injustice happen in front of me, whether it happened to me or someone else, I cannot take it.

And I will always stand up for that. And that's always been in my blood, ever since I was young. So when I was studying chemistry in my final year at the university, I came to be in a group of students who were simply demanding for the true release of a student – a fellow student who was shot and killed by the police without any reason, really.

And even that student was shot and killed right on the spot. His family was not even allowed to have a funeral for him. So basically, for me, as a person, this is a complete injustice. And I cannot take it. So that was the first time I decided that I will do something about it.

And that was the beginning that led me to continue to involve in this struggle for democracy and human rights. And I have come to be advocating for it and striving for it until now, about 22 years already.

There was a military coup in September of 1988: the time when the army really raided the whole cities and towns across the country, and really did the massive killing and shooting. People – not only those of us who were demonstrating on the streets – were shot and killed.

But also, the general public, even in their own houses and neighborhood, were shot. And that killed about 10,000 across the country. And not only that they killed, but the authorities really started to chase down particularly those student activists who were leading. So that included me and my colleagues, my friends. So we were playing mouse and cats games that time, just hiding from one place to another, trying to escape from the arrest. And the army and the military intelligence kept chasing us down.

So finally, we didn't have a chance to be in the country anymore. So the military coup was on September 18th, and then the killing took place until, like, September 19th, 20th. Then things calmed down. And that's the time when they started to really chase down on the demonstrators and started the massive arrest.

My friends and I, myself, we decided not to leave but tried to continue our struggle within the country. So we were hiding from one house to another. And then we tried to reorganize among the students, but it didn't last long: for about a month or so time.

They finally found us, and we had no other place to hide anymore. So in November, early November, my friends and I, we had to leave the country.

Well, I moved back to the region, or to the border, because that's always been my plan since I left the border area, since I left for the United States. My plan was to come back to Burma, if I can, and contribute for the democracy development in the country. Or if I cannot go back to Burma yet, to come back to the Thai-Burma border and continue to work with the democracy movement, and do whatever I can.

So my plan was to try to study in U.S., and also get more experience, and try to do what I can while I'm in the U.S.. And I'm very grateful to the United States for giving me this opportunity because, basically, I was able to bring Burma to the U.S. and international agenda, to some extent. Of course, I'm not the only one doing that.

But I'm just saying like being an advocate myself, I did a lot of this: different levels of advocacy work. So I was able to do that while I was staying in U.S. for about nine years. But then I realized the time when, I think it was in 1996, when the Burmese Army, the Burmese military troops actually invaded into Thailand and then attacked one of the Karen refugee camps.

One of those Karen refugee camps was actually burned down, and then the refugees were chased out by the Burmese Army. Then, when I learned that news, I realized that this is the time – I have to go back. And I'm ready to do something, even though I don't know what I will be able to do. So that was in 1998. I decided to come back to the border. 

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 Ohmar

Khin Ohmar: Student Activist and Calling Her first protest against the Burmese military regime in 1988, after the police shot and killed one of her fellow students.

Other videos from Khin Ohmar

Khin Ohmar: Aung San Suu Kyi The leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Khin Ohmar: Encouragement A message to share with all democracy activists around the world. More +