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Four Brave Women Reveal Burma’s Progress

Article by Amanda Schnetzer and Charity Wallace May 31, 2013 //   4 minute read

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.