What got them through the darkest hours of prison? Phyoe Phyoe Aung and James say their fellow Forum participants were very supportive as they visited with news of the outside world. During one such visit, Phyoe Phyoe received a letter from President and Mrs. Bush.
At the inaugural Liberty and Leadership Forum graduation in May 2015, two chairs stood noticeably empty. Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a member of the program, was imprisoned in her home country of Burma (Myanmar). Her husband, Lin Htet Naing (also known as James), a Forum participant too, was in hiding from police. Their crime? Peacefully advocating for education reform. Upon hearing the news, President and Mrs. Bush issued a statement citing concerns about their arrest and wellbeing.
While James was later arrested and charged, Phyoe Phyoe spent just over 12 months in prison. In November 2015, the citizens of Burma voted overwhelming to end decades of oppressive military rule. Roughly 4 months later, all prisoners of conscious were freed, including Phyoe Phyoe Aung and Lin Htet Naing.
Today, Phyoe Phyoe Aung and James both dream of living under a thriving democracy. For them, Burma can only achieve this vision through education reform. When asked about their time in prison and what the conditions were like, both detailed sickness due to unclean water. They were also denied access to textbooks that would have allowed them to continue their studies.
What got them through the darkest hours of prison? Phyoe Phyoe Aung and James say their fellow Forum participants were very supportive as they visited with news of the outside world. During one such visit, Phyoe Phyoe received a letter from President and Mrs. Bush. “When I read the letter I felt overwhelming happiness,” remarked Phyoe Phyoe Aung. “Their words of encouragement meant that we were not forgotten. It showed that I mattered and the world knew about our suffering.”
The selection of Burma for the first two classes of the Liberty and Leadership Forum builds on President and Mrs. Bush’s history of standing with the brave men and women of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. While now on a path toward democracy, Burma’s destination is not yet guaranteed. One key to success is ensuring that today’s young democracy advocates in Burma are prepared to be tomorrow’s political and civil society leaders. With the knowledge and skills they gain from the program, the men and women of the 2015-2016 Liberty and Leadership Forum class will have many of the tools they need to succeed.