As a former political prisoner, Thin Thin Aye knows something about fear: that you should never let it stand in your way. That’s why the veteran activist, better known as Mee Mee, has made it her mission to persuade other Burmese women to set aside their fears and take a more active role in politics.
Since her release from prison in January of this year, Mee Mee has done much to live up to her own advice. As a prominent female member of the 88 Generation Students group, she is living proof that there is plenty of room for women in Burmese politics, if they choose to get involved.
“The political landscape is changing, and women are participating in politics more now than they did two decades ago,” says Mee Mee, speaking to The Irrawaddy during a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she was taking part in a series of workshops with exiled women’s groups.
The 40-year-old veteran activist is actively engaged in efforts to empower women through the Women’s Center, led by fellow 88-Generation leader Nilar Thein. The 88 Generation group has made women’s empowerment one of its major issues, along with human rights, peace in ethnic areas and workers’ and farmers’ rights.
Mee Mee has been imprisoned three times for her role in Burmese politics—in 1988, 1996 and 2007—and has spent a total of 10 years behind bars in nearly half a dozen prisons: Insein, Tharrawaddy, Pathein, Kathar and Shwebo.
She was just 16 the first time she was thrown in jail for taking part in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Then, at the age of 24, she was locked up again in her final year of studying zoology at Dagon University in Rangoon, this time for leading a student demonstration. After five years and nine months without contact with her two children, she was released from Tharrawaddy Prison in 2002.
Her third spell in prison began after the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when she received a 65-year sentence for leading protests against a dramatic rise in fuel prices. She was freed in January as part of a general amnesty that saw the release of hundreds of prominent political prisoners.
Since her time in prison in the mid-1990s, Mee Mee has suffered chronic pain in her joints due to the dire conditions under which she was forced to live. “I was arrested in winter, and for three months I stayed in a cell with nothing except a dirty mat in it,” she said.
Like other political prisoners, she was denied access to paper and reading materials, something she remembers as a real hardship. During her more recent prison term, however, she was not as severely restricted.
“This time I was allowed to read, so I had chance to study about issues that interest me,” she said. Unfortunately, she added, things were not much better in other respects, due to the attitude of some prison staff, who seemed to think it was their duty to mistreat prisoners.
Since her release from prison, Mee Mee has joined the network-building efforts of the 88 Generation group, traveling around the country and learning how to use social media to develop what the group calls its “Discussion on Peace and Open Society”—an initiative led by its most prominent members, Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Mya Aye.
Her own role in this effort has been to draw women into the discussion. She said that despite meeting many women who participate in everyday political activities, most say they don’t know how to get more politically involved.
The main obstacle for women, she said, is fear, something that most Burmese understand only too well after decades of oppression. But gender stereotypes are also a problem, as “Women tend to exclude themselves from political roles,” she said.
As much as she would like to change this mindset, however, Mee Mee doesn’t simply urge women to ignore social attitudes or their own reluctance to get involved in activities that many still see as potentially dangerous. Rather, she appeals to their own innate capacity to understand issues that really matter to them.
“I would not force them to accept any ideology without knowing the meaning of it themselves,” she said. “I want women who join politics to be able to think for themselves about what is right or wrong, using their own critical thinking.”
Part of this process is teaching women that they are already actively engaged in politics. “If they are doing philanthropic work, we have to explain to them that this is also political work. Gradually, their thinking changes,” she said.
Of course, it’s not enough just to change women’s attitudes—men’s mindsets also have to be taken into consideration. On this score, however, Mee Mee said that she finds that men are more open-minded about giving women a role in politics than they would have been in the past.
Although some now say that a quota should be set to make more room for women in politics, Mee Mee said the first priority should be to ensure that women are qualified to fill leadership roles, by giving them the skills they need to succeed in politics.
“It doesn’t mean anything to set aside 30 percent of political positions for women, if they don’t have specific skill-sets,” she said. “We need more women politicians who have the courage to speak the truth and who have the ability to do so.”
Courage is also needed to deal with issues to don’t have any easy answers. During a number of recent trips to Arakan State with Nilar Thein, Mee Mee saw first-hand that some attitudes die hard. There is a lot of work to be done there to develop people’s thinking about many things, she said about her encounters with local people in the strife-torn state.
Asked what she thought about the participation of women in exiled political groups, Mee Mee said that she was greatly encouraged by what she has seen during her trip to Thailand.
“Burmese women activists are so strong here in Thailand and I would like to see women inside the country become more like them. So we have to do more networking within the country as well as outside,” she said. She pointed out that a major difference between women inside Burma and those outside the country is that former have far less access to gender-related knowledge.
Although sheer determination to do the right thing has been the driving force in her life, Mee Mee said she could not have come this far without the support of her family, especially her husband, who has been very understanding of her efforts.
“I’m not the perfect mother or housewife, and I don’t think I ever will be,” she said, noting that she has not been able to spend as much time with her family since her release as she would have liked.
Despite her obvious passion for politics, however, Mee Mee said she has no interest in becoming a politician and running in the 2015 election.
“I will continue to work for the people as one of them, in accordance with the 88 Generation Students group’s 10-year plan to carry its Peace and Open Society activities,” she said.