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Burma’s political opening continued in recent days with two notable developments. On January 29, the government lifted a 25-year ban on public gatherings of more than five people. The prohibition had been implemented following the 1988 crackdown on students protesting in favor of democracy.
On February 1, Burma opened its very first international literary festival chaired by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. More remarkable than the renowned authors on the program were the Burmese writers who once languished as political prisoners or feared other retribution for writing books and poems that the former military regime considered threats to its power.
The recent changes in Burma have come at a rapid pace, and the country’s new civilian-led government deserves credit for beginning to roll back authoritarian practices. But the real heroes of this transformation are the courageous men and women who for decades have sacrificed their education, their health, their livelihood, their personal autonomy and, for far too many, their life, for the sake of freedom. For them, Burma’s transformation was slow in coming.
This week the Bush Institute had the privilege of hosting four impressive women who are dedicated to making Burma’s democratic gains permanent:
Zin Mar Aung was a political prisoner for 11 years. She was arrested as a university student and held in solitary confinement for her revolutionary poetry. Since her release in 2009, Zin Mar has established the Yangon School of Political Science and “RAINFALL,” an organization focused on women’s empowerment.
Nilar Oo for many years was involved in visiting political detainees and trying to protect civilians in conflict-affected areas of Burma. With two brothers who were political prisoners, she drew from personal experience to help the families of other detainees. In 2010, she founded the Myat Myanmar Humanitarian Assistance Group, which provides training and employment opportunities for at-risk women and girls.
“Khin Lay” Khin Than Myint has been an active member of Burma’s National League for Democracy since 1995, leading the party’s youth and women’s wings among other positions. In 2000-2001, Khin Lay was imprisoned for helping organize a trip by Aung San Suu Kyi to Mandalay. She remains active in the NLD and is currently a freelance translator.
Shunn Lei Swe Yee is a founding member of the Myanmar Youth Network and a co-founder of the Pandita Development Institute (PDI), which helps train individuals to engage in civil society and the democratization process. She also co-founded RAINFALL with Zin Mar Aung.
Burma’s future will be bright if more women like these can pursue—and realize—their dreams under conditions of freedom and democracy. While cautious optimism is in order, Burma’s political opening remains fragile and requires vigilance to encourage and protect.
We thank Goldman Sachs, the McCain Institute, and Meridian International for the opportunity to partner together on this important program to equip these remarkable women with tools to become even greater forces of change in their country.
Amanda Schnetzer is Director of Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute and Charity Wallace is Director of the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative.
Amanda Schnetzer is Director of Global Initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. In this role, she is responsible for developing innovative research, programmatic, and policy efforts to advance societies rooted in political and economic freedom and to empower women to lead in their communities and countries. Previously she served as the Bush Institute’s founding director of the Human Freedom Initiative.
Amanda has twenty years of experience in the international arena and a background in public policy research and analysis, public affairs, and management of diverse, high-level stakeholders. As senior fellow and director of studies at Freedom House in New York, Amanda guided research for the organization’s definitive studies of freedom. She began her career at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, supporting research on U.S. foreign policy and international politics. Amanda is a published writer and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds degrees from Georgetown University and Southern Methodist University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Charity N. Wallace serves as the Senior Advisor to the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute and is in an executive graduate program in pursuit of a Global Master of Arts degree in international relations from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Most recently, Ms. Wallace served as the Vice President of the Global Women’s Initiatives and Senior Advisor to Mrs. Laura Bush. In this role, Ms. Wallace was responsible for setting the vision and managing the policy engagement for the women’s initiatives, including Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon global health initiative, empowering women in the Middle East and working with First Ladies from around the world. The Women's Initiative aims to improve access to education, health care, and economic opportunity for women and children in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
From February 2009 through September 2010, Wallace served as the Chief of Staff to Mrs. Laura Bush. Wallace oversaw Mrs. Bush’s initiatives - from her wide ranging policy agenda to her the publishing and promotion of Mrs. Bush’s bestselling book, Spoken from the Heart. Wallace served in the Bush Administration from January 2001 to January 2009. During her tenure in the administration, she served as Deputy Chief of Protocol of the United States (2007-2009), Director of Advance for First Lady Laura Bush (2004-2007), and worked in public liaison positions in Presidential Advance, the U.S. Department of Education, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and USA Freedom Corps. During her tenure in the Bush Administration and in her current role, Wallace has traveled to 70 countries.
Ms. Wallace serves on the Board of Advisors for the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the Advisory Board of ARZU Studio Hope, the Advisory Board of 4word Women and the Advisory Board of All In Together, an bi-partisan organization that promotes women’s engagement in political and civic life. Ms. Wallace is an ex-officio member on the Human Freedom Advisory Council for the Bush Institute. Ms. Wallace wrote the foreword for the book Work, Love, Pray, which was released in 2011. A native of California, Ms. Wallace graduated magna cum laude from Pepperdine University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, with a focus in international relations.Full Bio
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