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’m the founder of the Triangle Women’s Support Group. I did some of the women programs since 2011, but at that time, I’m not very – dared to be in public, not – I couldn’t do it openly at that time. But after – in 2011 – sorry – 2012 March 8 there is International Woman Day. So we announced our group openly, publicly, and we would do such kinds of women activities, and women’s empowerment programs through the channels and media.
And now, I mainly target women, to strengthen women and young women to engage in democratization, not only in politics, but also in public life. That’s why we give the awareness raising training and presentation to mothers and women, especially in a classroom level, because, you know, 60 percent of our population are women. Without the development and improvement of women, democracy is nothing. We believe like that. Our country will never develop. We believe like that. That’s why we try to encourage our women and to promote the status of our women to be engaged in a new situation.
So that’s why – and moreover, I give the career development training to the young women who are from 16 to 30. So I think there will be more investment coming in the future. Without the proper skill of our people, they won’t get a decent job. That’s why I try to teach them like computing, basic accounting, English classes, English language classes, like that. And compulsory courses about sex education, and, again, ethics, values. And also, now I make some of the events and organize some of the events like international visitor came to our country. And I made panel discussion, lecture, presentation.
So there is one of the think tank groups in [Washington] D.C., CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies], came to our country and I organized panel discussions with them and also Freedom House. During their visit, I made the advocacy training for the young activists. Because, you know, at that moment we were still – most of our people still live in – they still regarded themselves as activists. Not as advocates. So the situation is a little bit changed. [Being an] activist is still good, but we should advocate in some way. So demonstration is one of the two, but advocacy is also very effective in the future we believe like that.
That’s why we give the advocacy training. And also many – Professor Larry Diamond [prominent democracy scholar and Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution] came to our country. We made the lecture, invited the young people to listen about democracy and transition. So I try to give the exposure to my new generation, what – the international community practice and democratic practice. I try to give them such kind of exposure, even though they can’t come up from the country to hear or something like that. But they have – they can get a little experience of the international exposure.
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.