While Bill Clinton was president in 1998, Zin Mar Aung of Burma was placed in solitary confinement. She did not regain her freedom until Barack Obama became president.
Zin Mar Aung says she had never heard of President George W. Bush or his wife, Laura, who had used Aung’s own bully pulpit to push for the freedom of Burma’s most famous political prisoner, democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi is widely know now due to the largely unacknowledged work of the Bushes, as well as of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Since her release, Kyi has risen to public office, has been the subject of a movie (The Lady) and has won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Four Burmese women, not as well-known as Aung San Suu Kyi, are visiting the United States for leadership training. These rising female leaders are sponsored by Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program, in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute and the Meridian International Center.
Try for a moment to imagine the life Zin Mar Aung lived for 11 years. Put yourself under a military dictatorship where free speech is not only banned but is punishable by incarceration, torture or worse. Imagine being in solitary confinement in an 8’ by 8’ cell with nothing but a small water jug, a sink for waste and a 15-minute break for a cold bath in a communal bath. For good measure, toss in a lack of amenities (shoes) or even necessities, such as sanitary napkins.
How does one maintain any sense of sanity under such conditions? Acceptance of one’s situation! Meditation of the fact her crime was simply publicly reading and distributing a collection of revolutionary poems she and her fellow students had written. She focused on those poems to get her through more than 4,000 days of imprisonment.
Then it happened – she was free!
What does one do with freedom after living in complete isolation in a 64 square foot area? That would be difficult in any country but especially so in Burma, a nation relatively new to democratic reform. How does one find her voice again where women are not universally embraced in the political process in spite of the admiration the country holds for The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Still, Zin Mar Aung courageously picked up where she left off, earning a degree in botany and pursuing an international law degree. As an activist, she established the Yangon School of Political Science and co-founded Rainfall, an organization focused on women’s empowerment.
Aung and her three colleagues have been successful in 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 challenge: Stop Sexual Harassment on the Bus Now.
Zin Mar Aung’s three colleagues are:
- Hla Hla Yee – mother, attorney and former political prisoner who counsels marginalized women and provides paralegal training in orphanages and elsewhere
- Shunn Lei Swe Yee – mobilizes young people to work for a more civil society
- MaNilar OO – 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 and Hla Hla Yee while they were imprisoned.
More recently, Yee has been training and finding jobs for at-risk girls and young women (ages 13 – 35). She recently lost two teenagers from her program when they were sold by their parents for $100 each. The girls were considered to be of great value because they were virgins, the sundering of whom is crudely termed in Burma to open a new envelope.
While some of these struggles may sound familiar even in our country, the difference for these four Burmese women is the absence of democratic traditions in their country and a lack of familiarity with the instruments of freedom.
Let us pray for the safety and success of these four courageous women.