Wai Hnin Pwint Thon had known her father was at risk of being arrested again. With rumours of a coup circulating in January, “he was very outspoken”, warning of “the military using bullying tactics to destroy democracy”.
What she had not expected was to actually watch soldiers escorting him from his home through a deserted night-time street in Yangon, from over 5000 miles away in Geneva, Switzerland. His neighbour had sent her the CCTV.
“To actually see it on the footage like that, was a shock.”
Wai Hnin is a British-Burmese activist who serves as Campaigns Officer for Burma Campaign UK, an organisation that lobbies for democracy and human rights in Burma, a country plunged back into military dictatorship at the beginning of February. Her father is Ko Mya Aye, also a political activist, who is best-known for being a leader of the 8888 Uprising in 1988, when hundreds of thousands protested against military rule.
To actually see it on the footage like that, was a shock…
After nearly nine years of relative reform, Burma is now in a similar position to that summer in 1988. Ko Mya Aye is one of many political figures, including recently deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, to be arrested during both periods. Civil unrest that began with citizens beating pots and pans by night outside their homes has grown into hundreds of thousands protesting and striking. Police have beaten, shot, and teargassed protesters. For some this has been fatal, such as Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who died after being shot in the head on February 9.
But as Wai Hnin’s experience of watching her father’s arrest demonstrates, the internet is one factor that has changed since 1988, providing a grassroots space for organising, communicating, and protesting, and international exposure. Coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly tried to suppress this since taking power; initially banning facebook, then all social media, repeatedly implementing full internet blackouts, and proposing legislation that will require internet providers to remove content deemed to “cause hatred, destroy unity and tranquility”.
When I spoke to Wai Hnin on the 4th February, before much of this had happened, she predicted that “they will have to shut down the internet like they did in Rakhine state in past months”, otherwise it would “let the frustrations grow”.
My family thought it was traumatising to take a child to the prison
Her own frustrations have been growing since her earliest years of life. She was born four months after her father was first arrested, and had to wait another four years before getting a chance to meet him. “My family thought it was traumatising to take a child to the prison”.
When she finally did at four years old, it was through “iron bars” in Insein Prison, which was rife with disease and torture, and known locally as the “darkest hell-hole in Burma”. “I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t embrace him. And, of course, I didn’t know this person apart from the photograph that my mom showed me. I remember feeling very shy, very awkward and talking to someone, who was my dad.”
I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t embrace him. I didn’t know this person…
Two years later, Mya Aye was moved to Taungoo Prison, in a more remote area, making him harder to visit. “I remember we would go there by overnight train, see him in the morning and then get a train back because we couldn’t afford to stay overnight.”
Even once her father was released, growing up as an ethnic minority and Muslim in Burma was not easy. Wai Hnin experienced racism and Islamophobia from her friends day-to-day, and struggled to understand why her ID card listed her as “Pakistani, Indian”, when she’d never left the country or known her great-grandparents.
I never realized before that point, how religiously nationalist the country is…
She has experienced similar abuse as an adult living in England from the British Burmese community. As the Rohingya crisis unravelled in 2012, friends who’d supported her when she’d arrived as a teenager who “wasn’t able to speak [English] properly” were now threatening her, and comparing her to “dogs and all the most vile things you could think about.
“That changed the perspective of my country a little bit, because I never realized before that point, how nationalist and how religiously nationalist, the country is, it’s always been.”
Her grandparents had made a sudden decision in 2006 to send her to live with friends in the UK, as she was banned from attending university in Burma. A year later, when she was 18 years old, her father was arrested again following the ‘Saffron Revolution’, and she began involving herself in activism in the UK. By 2010 she was addressing the Labour Party conference, calling for international action.
It’s been quite disappointing from the UK government
A decade later Wai Hnin is once again asking British politicians to act, spearheading a campaign to lobby Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab into imposing sanctions on Burmese military companies. While Raab implied earlier in the month that this could become a reality, but later dissapointed with what was effictively just a ‘holiday ban’ on three military leaders. The Government is still promising “to mitigate the risk of military businesses operating in the UK”, but Wai Hnin acknowledges that “it’s been quite disappointing from the UK government, they’ve been quite slow”.
Meanwhile, Wai Hnin has been in touch with her mother and sister in Yangon, who have not heard from Mya Aye. “Mum’s experienced with this situation, but of course it doesn’t stop her from worrying…the first time when my dad was arrested, after the 8888 Uprising, we didn’t hear from him for five months. After five months, the authorities contacted my mum and said ‘Oh, he’s been sentenced. You can come and see him in prison.’ Then the second time, it was three months. So, I’ve been trying to tell her, you know, what happened in the past, just expect it might be the same.”
For all the cycles Burma has been through over her lifetime though, Wai Hnin doesn’t want to minimise the significance of this recent coup. It’s true, in her opinion, that the “international community got carried away a bit” in overstating reform in Burma during the 2010s, as “there was always a threat hanging over us” while living under the 2008 constitution and the human rights abuses of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. It’s also true that the “younger generation grew up thinking that they more or less have freedom of expression, and they were able to enjoy a good standard of life compared to when I was growing up, in a relatively free society. So for them, it’s particularly very shocking to see the military coup happen.”
Wai Hnin says she’s “trying to be optimistic” about Burma’s future, but the struggle for human rights and democracy can feel like “digging for gold in a place that you can’t find gold”. Not only has this month been a grave setback for democracy in Burma, but the future “doesn’t look good” for the ongoing Rohingya genocide. She still hopes to return to live in the country one day though, and hopes probably do lie with the next generation of younger leaders to move the country towards reform. They have been “coming out with the very creative ideas about civil disobedience, organizing different ways…what they’ve been doing is incredible and I really admire them.”
Bertie Harrison-Broninski is the editor of The Civil Society Review, as well as being a boardmember for Oxford Omnia, and a freelance journalist. You can follow him on twitter here, and find his online portfolio here.