The activist pressuring Dominic Raab on Myanmar: In Conversation with Wai Hnin Pwint Thon

The activist pressuring Dominic Raab on Myanmar: In Conversation with Wai Hnin Pwint Thon
Protesters in front of Kayin State Hluttaw on February 9. Wikimedia commons.

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.”

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is the Campaigns Officer for Burma Campaign UK. You can follow her on twitter here, and find the Burma Campaign UK website here.

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.


Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter

Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

Russell Square is a bustling and leafy area in the middle of London. It is home to many great institutions that in their own way represent British history, including the School of Oriental and African Studies, a university founded to train colonial administrators, and the British Museum, a beautiful collection of artefacts collected from around the world. Between these two institutions steeped in controversial colonial history sits Senate House, the striking building that Orwell modelled the exterior of his Ministry of Truth upon in his famous novel 1984. Its white art deco façade seems to rise endlessly into the sky, making it one of London’s most striking, and arguably austere, buildings. The proximity of these institutions to a building that plays such a key role in Orwell’s most famous work is prescient in times when 1984 is being invoked to criticise Black Lives Matter’s attempt to get the UK to recognise the legacy of colonialism, most notably in the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. In particular, the following quote from 1984 has been used by many on social media to criticize this act:

…every statue and street building have been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Those who have shared this as if it denounces the felling of statues like Colston’s have misunderstood 1984 and George Orwell. Orwell’s point is better illustrated by the fact that the statue stood for 125 years in the first place. The spaces we inhabit act as tributes to historical individuals whose true impact and role in history is often erased by foregrounding more favourable characteristics. Colston’s statue did not engage with his role in the slave trade, instead describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’. Where Orwell’s statues are “renamed” ours are recategorised so that Colston, and many others, are remembered by their virtue rather than their violence. 

This discussion has never been just about Edward Colston, or even statues. It is about why our society is so protective over the dominant, but incorrect or obscuring, narratives of history. The characters in Orwell’s two most famous fictional works, Animal Farm and 1984, are served narratives that reinforce dominating power structures through false tellings of history. This is what Orwell stood against: the protagonists of both Animal Farm and 1984 were not the people supporting the status quo but were instead subversive thinkers, in the case of Winston Smith of 1984, and revolutionaries, in the case of the animals of Animal farm.  

Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, rebelled by collecting parts of the cultural legacy cut out from the dominant narrative. The nursery rhyme line “Oranges and Lemons, ring the bells of St Clement’s” led to him learning about a history which wasn’t endorsed by the near-omnipotent Big Brother, from a small antiques shop in the proletariat area of the city. This simple fragment of history led him on a fateful journey to a showdown with authority in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. The experience of learning about history through fragments collected outside of the mainstream will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in British colonial history, which is noticeably absent from the national curriculum and more jingoistic popular histories of Britain.  

Orwell was critical of the status quo and was no shrinking wallflower when it came to challenging power. His work is so often used to invoke the USSR and communist dictatorship, however, it is also evocative of some episodes in the history of the British Empire. A particularly famous example is the burning of documents relating to the detention of over a million Kikuyus in settlement camps in Kenya during the 1950s as a response to the threat of a small nationalist insurgency known as Mau Mau. This has left historians unable to see the incarceration from the perspective of the British government and prevented the extent of the atrocities from becoming widely known to the public until the mid-noughties. Only in 2011 did the government admit that they had continued to keep 200,000 documents secret from the public for over five decades, some of which showed that the government had covered up the systematic abuse in the internment camps. 

This nuance is lost on many. In the Daily Express Leo Mckinstrey writes

For most of us 1984 was a warning.
For radical agitators it was a blueprint.

McKinstry is right of course in saying that Orwell meant 1984 as a warning, but he is wrong that it is the ‘radical agitators’ of the left using it as a blueprint. It is not Black Lives Matter who present a threat to history; many have been very clear about their desire for a broader history curriculum and for more context to be given to British history. The people who are using 1984 as a guide are some of the politicians running our country. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man famous for lying, has recently claimed ignorance over footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign that forced a major government U-turn and had have his own words quoted back to him by the leader of the opposition to remind him of his original policy about COVID-19 and care home safety. This is not to mention his unconditional support for Dominic Cummings whose trip to Durham was painted as a reasonable decision by government ministers while most of the country was shocked by the audacity with which they revised the meaning of the lockdown conditions.  

This has been a persistent problem since Johnson became leader of his party: during the 2019 General Election an independent fact checker found that 88% of Conservative Party adverts contained lies, while the Tories rebranded their twitter as ‘Fact Check UK’, a fake fact-checking service. This enduring problem with truth from our current government recently led to an anonymous civil servant tweeting the following from a civil service twitter account:

Arrogant and offensive.
Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?

If social media existed in the universe of 1984 then Winston Smith, who was a civil servant tasked with rewriting history, would most likely have written something similar from his desk in the Ministry of Truth, given the chance. 

What many who are invoking Orwell seem to have missed is that those with power are the ones that control the narrative of history. The very nature of protest suggests that people feel they do not have enough power to influence the course of, and telling of, history. Orwell would not be surprised that his work would be used to smear protesters that Donald Trump has called ‘Anti-fascists’. He recognised that becoming part of the cultural canon was part of reinforcing the narrative of those in power; he is afterall the man who wrote that “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. The crowning irony is, of course, that Orwell was a self-professed anti-fascist who went to Spain to fight alongside anarchists against the fascist armies of General Franco. This was the cognitive dissonance that Orwell sought to capture in the word doublespeak. A term in the fictional language of 1984 termed Newspeak which was designed to reduce the possibility of subversive thoughts. People are concerned that history is being re-written in front of our eyes. This is a valid concern. The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has always been true. However, in this epoch there are new challenges ranging from politicians who are no longer held to account for their pathologically clumsy lying such as Johnson and Trump, to the social media echo chambers that have seen fake news so successfully spread. One thing is for certain: against this backdrop it is unlikely that Black Lives Matter is the movement that will lead us into the world of 1984.

Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.