Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified one of the Burmese women who traveled to the United States. Khin Lay made the trip after Hla Hla Yee, who was named and described in the column, decided not to come. The following column has been corrected.
When Burma’s Zin Mar Aung was placed in solitary confinement in 1998 for trying to organize students, Bill Clinton was president of the United States.
When she was released, Barack Obama was in the Oval Office.
Zin Mar Aung says she had never heard of George W. Bush or his wife, Laura, who used her own bully pulpit to push for liberation of Burma’s most famous political prisoner, democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, then under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi is known to many now because of the largely unacknowledged work of the Bushes, as well as of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Since her release, Aung San Suu Kyi has risen to public office, accepted her Nobel Peace Prize and been the subject of a movie (“The Lady”).
Less well-known are four rising female leaders with whom I met, including Zin Mar Aung, who are visiting the United States this month for leadership training. The Burmese women’s delegation is sponsored by Goldman Sachs’ “10,000 Women” program, in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute, the McCain Institute and the Meridian International Center.
What does all this mean?
Start here: Imagine living under a military dictatorship where free speech is punishable by incarceration, torture or worse. Imagine sitting in an 8-by-8-foot cell alone for 11 years with nothing but a small water jug, a “sink” for waste and a 15-minute daily break for a cold bath in a communal tub. Throw in a lack of any amenities (shoes) or even necessities, such as sanitary napkins.
This was Zin Mar Aung’s life for 11 years. How did she hang on to her sanity, I asked. She says she accepted that her existence consisted of those 64 square feet; wishing otherwise would do her no good. Meditate on that for a few seconds, while keeping in mind that her crime was publicly reading and distributing a collection of revolutionary poems she and her fellow students had written. Zin Mar Aung says she focused on those poems to get her through more than 4,000 days.
Then one day, she was free.
What does one do next? How does one navigate freedom in a nation relatively new to democratic reform and find the voice to speak when one has been silenced? Second and third thoughts further crowd the spirit in a country where, despite admiration for The Lady (as everyone refers to Aung San Suu Kyi), women are not universally embraced in the political process.
It takes courage to put one foot in front of the other, much less to become an activist, as Zin Mar Aung and her colleagues have done. For her part, Zin Mar Aung picked up where she left off, earning a degree in botany and pursuing an international law degree. In the meantime, she established the Yangon School of Political Science and co-founded Rainfall, an organization focused on women’s empowerment.
The accomplishments of the four Burmese women also include helping political prisoners, providing education and training to underserved girls and young women vulnerable to trafficking, and advocating for victims of domestic violence. The name of one of the organizations they help suggests the urgency and breadth of their challenges: Stop Sexual Harassment on the Bus Now.
The other three women are: Khin Lay; Shunn Lei Swe Yee, who mobilizes young people to work for a more civil society; and Ma Nilar OO, who worked for the International Red Cross for 18 years, advocated for political prisoners and personally provided some of those aforementioned necessities to Zin Mar Aung when she was imprisoned. More recently, she has been training and finding jobs for at-risk girls and young women (ages 13 to 35). She recently lost two teenagers from her program when their parents sold them for $100 each. They were of high value, apparently, because they were virgins, the sundering of whom is crudely termed in Burma “to open a new envelope.”
Some of these struggles sound familiar, even in our relatively advanced democracy. What is different for these women is the absence of democratic traditions in their country and a lack of familiarity with the instruments of freedom. Everything — from how to build a feminist movement to how to create a political party — has to be invented from scratch. What is the message? What is public opinion? How does a person get elected?
Imagine that. And then meditate about — or pray for — the safety and success of these four brave women.