RANGOON — Zin Mar Aung, 38, is a prominent Burmese activist who was recently honored as one of the Young Global Leaders 2014 by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Each year, the forum recognizes around 200 people under the age of 40 for their professional accomplishments and commitment to society. This year, WEF chose 214 Young Global Leaders from 66 countries.
Zin Mar Aung, a board member at the Yangon School of Political Science and founder of Rainfall Gender Study Group, is working to promote democracy, women’s empowerment and conflict resolution in Burma.
She was imprisoned for 11 years following her involvement in the 1996 and 1998 pro-democracy uprisings. She was awarded the International Women of Courage Award by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012, which honors women around the world since 2007 who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, she spoke out about Burmese society’s attitudes to women and the youth, and the challenges the country faces.
Question: When did you start Rainfall Gender Study Group and the Yangon School of Political Science?
Answer: I started working two years ago after I was released from prison in 2009.
Q: When did you become involved in political affairs and what inspired you to become a political activist?
A: When I was university student, I became active in politics. But I contributed to the political movement that started in 1996. The ’88 uprising inspired me to become involved in political movements. On the day after the 8888 uprising, I marched together with the crowd from morning to evening. I witnessed the incidents that happened that day. I was in seventh grade at that time. That urged me to become a political activist later.
Q: Why were you detained in prison for 11 years?
A: In 1998, I was involved in the movement on the 10-year anniversary of the ’88 uprising. We handed out pamphlets to remind people about the political situation in the country and released a statement urging political changes that the government opposed. So I was detained.
Q: You were arrested aged 22 and you passed most of your young life in prison. What were the difficulties for a woman in prison?
A: The men were more often tortured and physically inspection. For the women in prison, we faced more difficulties when our menstruation periods came because we were neglected. Other difficulties were the same as with men.
Q: You were given the international women of courage award by Hillary Clinton in 2012. Tell me why you won that award?
A: I really tried hard to fit in with the society after released from the prison. I went to the meditation center and attended training. After that, I went to refugee camps in Kachin State together with my friends, provided assistance to ex-political prisoners’ families and raised public awareness about peace and civil war. The International Women of Courage award is given to at most 10 women from across the globe annually on International Women’s Day. US embassies all over the world, mainly in developing countries, nominate a woman who matches with the criteria for the award. I was nominated for 2012 and chosen.
Q: What do you think about women’s participation in politics in the country?
A: Women participate in politics a lot. But the amount of participation by women in decision-making is less. And I also assume the numbers of qualified women who can talk in political affairs internationally are still small because we shaped our fields of interest not to be related with politics for a long time. But now many women are interested in politics.
Q: What advice do you have for Burmese women?
A: Everyone has different skills. But women have courage and power that is kept hidden. So I want to tell them not to keep it hidden and to show that power. So this power from each woman will be gathered as strength for both their individual lives and for the society. And I also want to urge the society: don’t underestimate women who have such hidden power. Sometimes, they act like they are protecting women, but actually they are overprotecting us, and that pushes women behind.
Q: You were selected for Young Global Leader 2014. How do you feel about that?
A: I feel I have more responsibility not to step back.
Q: How can it benefit your work?
A: I get a chance to do more networking with world leaders. And also the local connections will be better. But the challenge is we need to develop the capacity that can apply that network efficiently. We also need to build the abilities, opportunities, and also the trust among youths.
Q: Do you see differences between Burmese youth and international youth?
A: The main difference between Burmese youth and international youth is opportunity. People are saying that youths in the country don’t want to do jobs. If you are saying that, how many job opportunities do you have for them? Without creating job opportunities for them, it is unfair to say youths don’t want to do jobs. And some blame youths, saying that young people are only wasting their time with fun. But there are not enough libraries and government plans to motivate them. When I visited to countryside, there are many alcoholic drinks shops along the way to schools, but there are no libraries or other places for them to study literature. Those are needed nationwide. If we can’t give good opportunities to young people, they will go the wrong way.