After 24 years of exile in Thailand, Aung Myo Min is once again making his voice heard. A leader of the student rallies in Rangoon – Yangon as it is today – back in 1988, the outspoken human rights activist is determined to see the restoration of rule of law and justice in Myanmar.
Back in his native land since 2013 after almost quarter of a century away, he’s hoping to make the Myanmar people, and especially children, realise the true meaning of human rights as well as aware of their own rights.
“After years of learning about human rights at different universities during my exile, I have a much better understanding of what these rights really mean. As a result, I feel a responsibility to work for my country and for my people who don’t have my opportunities. I see human rights in a much broader sense now. The Myanmar military’s violations of human rights are violations of the rights of humanity,” he says, adding that he won a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in international public affairs at Columbia University during his exile in Thailand.
Myo Min’s perspective on human rights is deeply rooted in his student activism back in 1988. That year he and other student leaders from Yangon University fled to the jungle on the border with Thailand after the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in which thousands of people were killed.
In the jungle, as a member of an ethnic insurgent group, he took up arms against the military junta but later decided to lay down his weapon to opt for a non-violent means to achieve his own ends.
Aung Myo Min’s HREIB focuses on promoting child rights and preventing child trafficking. (Nation Photos/SukolKerdnaimongkol)
“I prefer the non-violent way, to use human rights as a tool. I came to the border area to take up arms as part of the students’ struggle against the military. Later I realised that was not the right choice for me. So I left the jungle to find other options to promote restoration of human rights. Out of the jungle, I fell in love with the term ‘human rights’ and since then my goal has been to call for justice, peace, rule of law in my country,” he told XP two Sundaysago at Survarnabhumi Airport while in transit between Germany and the border town of Mae Sot.
Myo Min was in Yangon on June 15 to attend the Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival, which was screening US director Jeanne Hallacy’s documentary “This Kind of Love”, based on Myo Min’s life.
The documentary explores Myanmar's political transition through the life of this human rights educator and activist, following him as he returns to his homeland.
The film will not only help draw the world’s attention to Myanmar’s current human rights situation but also the mission Myo Min is leading through the NGO he founded, the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB). As a gay, he’s also spearheading an LGBT rights campaign called Equality Myanmar, the first of its kind in his homeland.
The HREIB focuses on promoting child rights and preventing child trafficking and is working in partnership with the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT) in Mae Sot. Since his return to the country two years ago, most of the activity is now taking place in Myanmar.
“Our activity aims to create community awareness of child trafficking, which is still a serious problem,” he says.
“Many girls from Myanmar aged from 12 to 16 are being trafficked to Thailand as sex workers and to China as brides. While we’re working hard to stop child trafficking, the problem is always there. There are Myanmar and Thai gangs involved in selling these children as prostitutes, as well as to factories in Thailand’s fishing industry.
“There’s also demand for young girls in China where some men believe that marrying a young girl makes them younger. The problem has to do with poverty, lack of education and decent jobs for young people in Myanmar. Young girls used to come from border areas, but now they come from cities and are trafficked by teachers or government staff who make a lot of money out of it,” he says.
In both Mae Sot and Yangon, Myo Min uses theatre as a vehicle for promoting child rights and raising awareness of child trafficking. “We strongly believe that theatre is an effective tool for community mobilisation. These children love theatre because they don’t always have the luxury of listening to traditional Myanmar music and arts,” he says.
Aung Myo Min has returned to his native land since 2013. (Nation Photos/SukolKerdnaimongkol)
Human trafficking is just one of the human rights violations related to Myanmar’s many flaws. In terms of human rights, Myanmar is still not on the right track, he says. “Compared to three years ago, there’s been some kind of development. But it’s not moving genuinely towards human rights. There’s only just symbolic, artificial change. More than 100 seats in Parliament are occupied by the military,” he says.
The constitution still imposes restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression. “The law says you have the right to assemble, but you need to get permission first,” he says. He adds that crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations are still commonplace while investment in some areas lacks social responsibility and causes suffering among local people.
There’s also an attempt to pass a new law forbidding women from marrying non-Buddhist men.
“For us, this is totally against the fundamental rights of women,” he says.
His incendiary comments on the issue have resulted in a series of death threats from a fundamental Buddhist group.
Is he afraid?
“I don’t care. I’ve had these principles since 1988,” he says.
Worse, he’s not sure if the general election in November will ever come to pass.
“It’s hard to predict. The government might say it’s too soon to have an election because there’s still communal violence. The government might use this as a pretext for postponing the election. The government has many tricks,” he says.
Personally Myo Min has no interest in entering politics. His goal as an activist is to instil rule of law and justice in his country.
“In a country that doesn’t practice rule of law but is still ruled by law, people don’t dare to speak. Justice follows rule of law. Without rule of law, innocent people get arrested. When I talk about justice, I mean gender justice, ethnic justice and social justice,” he says.