Zin Mar Aung was imprisoned for 11 years for her involvement in Burma’s pro-democracy movement before her release in 2009. She is the co-founder of a women’s empowerment group, and currently leads an organization to raise awareness of issues affecting ethnic minorities in conflict areas. She won the prestigious 2012 U.S. Secretary of State’s Award for International Women of Courage. According to a U.S. State Department statement, Zin Mar Aung created and leads a self-help association for female ex-political prisoners, as well as a political science school in Rangoon which teaches and empowers civil society activists in Burma’s changing but still-challenging environment. She also established a cultural impact studies group to promote the idea that democracy is compatible with Asian culture, it said.
Excerpts from her interview with RFA Burmese service's Nayrein Kyaw:
Q: Why were you chosen for the International Women of Courage Award?
A: As a woman, I was imprisoned for 11 years, but I did not give up my beliefs. I have remained involved in democratic reform, in raising awareness and helping recent refugees in Kachin state, and encouraging women’s participation in the political and peace processes. I am told that these are the reasons I was chosen for this Women of Courage award.
Q: You have participated in clubs and forums held at the U.S. embassy. Can you tell me about that?
A: Yes, we formed some clubs based on our shared interests. We ex-political prisoners formed a cultural impact study club. We studied culture with regard to whether it can hinder democratic reform, considering questions such as ‘Democracy is not appropriate for this culture, but only for that culture,’ or, ‘Why is our democratic reform taking so long?’
We compared different cultures and their connections to democracy, and we met and discussed these things on a weekly basis. Our motto was simple: We will think what others dare not think. At that time [immediately following my release from prison in 2009], the political situation was very sensitive. It was worst among the elites, as all they wanted to do was to study and go abroad to have a good life. That's all. There was not much thought of reforming our country. I was pushing these issues about politics and women. Luckily, all my male friends [support women's issues].
Q: What have you learned about democracy? Are there different kinds for the East and West?
A: In principle, it is the same, although lifestyles may be different. When we look at culture, we see that it is not set. It is always changing. Culture is more than just how you dress. Culture has to include mental outlook. If a culture doesn't involve the intellectual, mental, and spiritual, we can't call it a culture, but an illusion.
Look at democratic values: these focus on human beings. Human rights are universal. We are human, so why can't we apply these values? This is because we did not practice them, because we did not apply them, because we were confined in a norm under authoritarian rule. So we have to begin to practice that. If we can encourage and give messages and awareness to each individual, it is not impossible to practice this. Democracy can be practiced anywhere.
Q: Can you tell us about the situation of political prisoners, those who have been released and those who remain in prison—their health, financial situation, family, and friends—since you are helping them?
A: As usual, if someone is imprisoned for so long, it takes time to get back into society. That's why we arrange self-help programs for ex-political prisoners, meeting and talking among ourselves so that we can gradually reintegrate into society. The most important need is education. I think that the older they are, the more difficult it is for them, as they have more stress and feel helpless. Because of the generation gap and because of constantly changing technology, lifestyles, and values, it is hard for them to become familiar with things. There is also the economical hardship that they face. For those who are still in prison, we have to let them know at the very least that they are not forgotten.
Q: You were in prison for 11 years. Were you tortured?
A: Compared to my friends, I have to say that my situation was better than that of others who told me their experiences. I wasn't tortured physically, but mentally. I was blindfolded and was denied food, water, and the chance to wash myself, and I once had to stay without moving for three days when I was interrogated at the Aung Tha Pye interrogation center, where I was kept for a week. Other than that, there was no physical torture. I was then sent to Insein Prison.
Q: How was your trial? Was it held in a civil court?
A: No, It was a military court. We were all blindfolded and taken to that special military court. It was a laugh, as we all knew there would be no justice. I will never forget the day I was sentenced. We were all clapping our hands and singing on our way back to prison.
Q: How did you pass these 11 years in prison?
A: The time before the sentencing was harder for me as a woman. There was not enough water to wash up, and there were other hardships. At first I thought I would be released soon. I was sentenced to 28 years. We thought they made no sense at all, that they gave us seven years for each charge. I got 28 years for four charges. I knew I would not be there for 28 years, as the military government was not going to last for 28 years. We saw there was absolutely no rule of law. We were sentenced as they liked, and then some were released, just as they liked.
So I just focused on myself, on how I was going to survive without giving up my beliefs, as my release was totally out of my control. I knew that I had the right to do what I did and that I didn't commit any crime. My conscience was clear. These were the only reasons I survived.
Q: Where should we begin with democratic reform?
A: Some people think that democracy is something that comes from heaven, and they hope they can get it right away. This is partially due to their strong wish to escape their current social and economical hardships, and because they don't know what democracy is because they haven't had it yet. Democracy is a practice, and citizens’ participation and responsibilities are vital.
Q: How do you see Burma now? Is it changing?
A: It is too early to say. We can see the dim light of early morning, but the light is not there yet. If we do not know how to handle events, or if the authorities are insincere, change can be reversed in many ways. So it depends on both sides. Opposition figures, democracy activists, and those in the government who sincerely want reform—if we all have determination to achieve a democratic society, we will have change.
We won't need to always work together, because in democracy we can practice mutual respect and agree to have differences. At this point we still have a lot of challenges.
Q: What do you think of the U.S.? What have you noticed?
A: People are very friendly, and I notice a lot of citizen participation.
Q: What about meeting with U.S. authorities?
A: They want to know about sanctions, but it is not for us to say to lift these or not. Do we have a change in our economic structure? Can we get foreign investment without it? I think they know better. I also want to highlight the fact that some political prisoners remain in jail. For example, Ko Aye Aung, who was sentenced in 1996, is still in jail. They can't say they have the wrong list. He is physically there. Just because high-profile prisoners have been released doesn't mean that all are out. I want to emphasize this issue.
Translated by Khin May Zaw.