Connect to share and comment
Meet some lesser-known women who have worked in her shadow, taking bold steps toward a more just country.
ZIN MAR AUNG: Pushing for change after prison
Zin Mar Aung
In 1998, when Zin Mar Aung was 22, the military came for her. She was home with her family, and her sister told her to run, but Zin Mar Aung knew she had no choice.
“I cannot escape,” she said as she recently recounted the events. “And if I escaped, they would pressure my father and family.”
The military interrogated her for a week, keeping her awake without food or water for three days at a time, she said. Her crime? Passing out pro-democracy poems. Zin Mar Aung received a 28-year sentence.
At first, Zin Mar Aung stayed at Yangon’s Insein Prison and could not see her family and had to eat what tasted like bad rice mixed with sand. The military transferred her to Mandalay, and her father took monthly bus rides to visit her and bring her rice, curries and dried food.
“As a father I was worried about everything, everything,” Aung Kyi said as he sat in his living room in Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township, clutching a cheroot and remembering his eldest daughter’s imprisonment. In a case across the room was a photograph of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama presenting Zin Mar Aung with the 2012 International Women of Courage Award.
Zin Mar Aung said she spent most of her time in prison in solitary confinement. She slept on a wooden floor, without a mattress or pillow. She had no electricity; in the winter, she felt freezing cold, and in the summer, blisteringly hot. Tiny bugs covered the floor, and she would wake in the night to find them crawling through her hair.
“The Burmese prisons are very famous for their bugs,” she said matter-of-factly.
For the first seven years she was not allowed to read books or write. She spent her time reciting Buddhist discourses, counting prayer beads and singing student revolutionary songs.
Eleven years into her sentence, the military let Zin Mar Aung free. And immediately, she returned to her work as a democracy activist.
She again faced criticism from friends who told her to be careful, but this time her family fully understood.
“I loved her to continue to do for my country,” said her father, who has turned a room attached to his house into a classroom filled with students who need extra tutoring. “She is my daughter, but I did not own her – our country owns her.”
Before returning to the classroom, Aung Kyi said he tells his students about Zin Mar Aung’s courage and time in prison. “All my pupils are also proud of my eldest daughter.”
NAW SHE’ WAH: Overcoming stigma
Naw She' Wah
The women sit on a bamboo mat around a low coffee table, talking as a group about how each first learned she had contracted HIV.
Thida Oo says her late husband was a pianist and guitarist and she a singer, and they performed together on television. She knew her husband carried the AIDS virus for years, but the couple never used protection because she did not know she could reduce the risk of transmission.
“We have lack of education, lack of awareness,” Thida Oo says, describing life in Yangon a decade ago.
“Only know, love her husband,” chimes in Naw She’ Wah, the chairwoman of Myanmar Positive Women Network.
“Love too much,” Thida Oo adds.
In an effort to portray the country and government in a positive light, the junta that ruled Myanmar for a half century suppressed knowledge about many things – including HIV. The lack of information put lives at risk and fueled stigma and discrimination.
Naw She’ Wah, who sits with her legs folded to the side, her pink toenails pointing out from under her blue longyi, explains that a few years ago there was so much discrimination in Myanmar against those with HIV/AIDS that many would not disclose their status. As more people gained knowledge about the infection and access to treatment, more have come forward.
She reaches out her long, thin arm covered in a light layer of thanaka or skin cream over to Hnin Thandar Win, sitting on the floor next to her. “In the beginning,” Naw She’ Wah says, “she didn’t want to go anywhere. Now she goes everywhere!”
“Me too,” Naw She’ Wah, continues. “I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
“Me too,” says Thida Oo.