When we see images of the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar, we see the spectacular protests of hundreds of thousands of people pouring out into the streets of towns across the country. But we often forget that each person there, every person carrying a banner, every student giving the three-finger salute, every teenager singing a song for democracy has his or her own story of individual courage.
Every protestor knows the dangers he or she face. They have seen their friends being shot and killed. Every day people are arrested and tortured and yet knowing that arrest, torture and detention is a real possibility, they choose to fight for democracy in a country that has seen military rule of the most brutal kind in history of humankind.
And among those who has worked tirelessly for a united, democratic Myanmar is Thin Thin Aung, a woman of keen intelligence, the ability to stay calm in the most difficult of circumstances and to continue to work in difficult circumstances with courage of conviction.
Thin Thin Aung disappeared on the morning of April 8, and by afternoon her friends were still hoping she may have gone into hiding but they finally found out that she had been picked up by the military. She is now being held in the notorious Yay Kyi Eaing interrogation centre.
As desperate calls were made for her release, the military junta have tried to destroy everything that she has built. On April 9, they raided her apartment she had bought with her hard-earned money and took away everything – this included all the things they had brought from Delhi while in exile, the computers in which was stored the history of her media house Mizzima, her car and the money they found. They seized the cash in her personal bank account as well the money in the Mizzima account that she managed.
Everything Thin Thin Aung and Mizzima had in Yangon has been taken away or destroyed.
Who is this frail woman whose personal strength is such a threat to the military junta of Myanmar?
Thin Thin Aung was a student when there was a national uprising in Burma in 1988. She had never been involved in politics but like hundreds and thousands of others she took part in protests and then escaped to the Indo-Mynamar border and took refuge in Mizoram. The escape from Yangon to the border was not an easy walk but she was young and the students thought it would all be over and the National League for Democracy would come to power soon. She had no idea she would have to stay in exile for 15 years.
However, unlike so many of the Burmese refugees who survived on a day-by-day basis in India, Thin Thin Aung managed to get admission into a business management course and got a degree. It was a skill she used in the organisation of resistance.
Thin Thin Aung began her career in journalism by working for the BBC. She also met a wide range of Indians from different political parties and organisations.
In India, she also met Soe Myint, a hero for the Burmese students movement because he had hijacked a plane through non-violent means to focus attention on the plight of his people. Living in exile, they had no identity papers other than the certificates offered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees recognising them as refugees.
Thin Thin Aung and Soe Myint started Mizzima online news service in 1998 and it grew into a major source of independent news. In addition, Thin Thin Aung was also deeply involved in organising Burmese women. She was struggling to involve women from minority nationalities along with the majority Burman women.
In 2012, Soe and Thin Thin Aung went back to Mynamar and got back their Myanmar citizenship. It was a citizenship they valued above all else. It was their love of their country that made them refuse all offers for resettlement in Europe, America or Australia – even though they helped so many others with the procedures of getting resettled.
I have had the privilege of seeing Thin Thin Aung in the most distressing circumstances, such as when her husband was on trial for hijacking but she kept her cool and he was acquitted.
In Myanmar, the 8.8.88 generation are looked upon with reverence and they continued to play an important role in the transition of their country from a military rule to a democracy. Thin Thin Aung managed to save and buy a flat in Yangon and she drove herself to the office, which was a good one hour away.
Working in a very conservative patriarchal society is not easy and an intelligent, independent woman is not always appreciated. When we met in Yangon some time ago, she said she missed going out late as she could in India but in Yangon she felt she was home.
Thin Thin Aung had not been feeling well and had been taking things a little slow. By the time the coup happened on February 1, she had already resigned from Mizzima. So when the military junta revoked Mizzima’s licence and banned it, Thin Thin Aung was not even a member of the group.
The Women’s League of Burma has made a public appeal for the release of Thin Thin Aung from detention and while we in India should heed to the appeal, it is the government of India that can do everything possible to ensure Thin Thin Aung is released. She is not only a women’s right activist, a journalist and a woman of substance but a true friend of India.
I know she has the courage the cool and power to withstand whatever situation.
Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise could have been written for Thin Thin Aung and the brave women in Myanmar.
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.
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