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.
Well, Daw Aung Saw Suu Kyi is still the leader of our movement, both inside and outside the country and across diaspora – the majority, I would say. If she is released by the regime like today, if she gets onto the street tomorrow, the whole country will follow. No matter what ethnic groups, no matter from what class.
Even that element within the military regime – and they are supportive pillars – will follow Daw Aung Saw Suu Kyi. It has happened before, and I believe it will happen again. And that is the only and primary reason why this regime continues to keep her confined in this house arrest.
So her leadership is [in] no doubt and is not questionable. She didn’t have to make it up to that. It’s just for being who she is. And the people see that in her. And people follow her for what she’s able to do and how she’s able to lead.
So there are people who say this may be a disadvantage for the movement, because she’s been targeted all the time. But my question then is, "If she is not there, what is it going to be for the movement? If she’s not there, where the Burmese democracy movement right now, all along with the ethnic movement?"
In 1988, when tens of thousands of us on the street confronted this military regime, and [were] even, you know, shot and killed, the whole world didn’t really know much of it. But only when Daw Aung Saw Suu Kyi, came into the picture of our democracy movement, the whole world come to know about the cause of Burma. And she has been, not only domestically among the people, but she’s been able to organize, I guess[BJF1] . I think I will say she’s been able to bring the people inside and outside the country and across the globe.
Not behind her, but it’s actually behind democracy. It’s not about Daw Aung Saw Suu Kyi. And it’s not about her personal charisma. It’s about democracy and how we believe in democracy and how we want to achieve democracy and how we want to live in a democratic society, how we long for freedom. And I think that is what she represents. And that is why people are behind her, not only in the country but also outside.
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.