Daughter of Burma’s Political Prisoner: Interview With Wai Hnin Pwint Thon
24 October 2011: Ms Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, daughter of a political prisoner, is a prominent face speaking for peace, freedom and democracy in Burma. Working as a campaign officer at Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), she has travelled across Europe and Asia meeting with government officials and leaders on Burmese issues.
She is studying politics and sociology at one of the UK’s prestigious universities in London.
In this interview with Chinland Guardian, Wai Hnin Pwint Thon talked about her father, life as a daughter of a political prisoner, and views on current situation of political changes in Burma.
Chinland Guardian: Burma’s government has started releasing more than 6000 prisoners but very sadly, your father is still in prison. What’s your view on it?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: I would have to say that it did not signify any political changes in Burma. There are between 1,000 to 2,000 political prisoners and they only released some of them. Many unwell political prisoners still remain in jail and they have been denied proper medical attention.
I am very happy for the families who have been reunited but also at the same time I am upset for the families who have been waiting for so very long to be reunited with their loved ones. For me, I will still be quite pessimistic about prospects if there are still political prisoners remaining in jail, even if my father is released.
Also, we have to remember our brothers and sisters who have been suffering in the ethic areas. So overall, I do not think this step as a significant change in Burma as human rights abuses are still happening as we speak.
Chinland Guardian: So, could you tell us more about your father?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: My father’s name is Mya Aye and he is one of the leaders of 88-Generation Students in Burma. He was first arrested in 1989 for his involvement in the 1988 uprising. He was sentenced to 8 years in jail and released in 1996.
He is very passionate about human rights and he continued to campaign for freedom in Burma even after he was released. He and his friends of 88-Generation Students group were arrested again in 2007 for protesting peacefully in Burma. They were detained for more than a year and in November 2009, they were sentenced to 65 years and 6 months.
If I have to tell you about my father’s personality, he is very friendly, generous and honest. He likes writing poems and songs, and he would sing those songs to me to see whether it is relevant with younger generations or not. Sometimes, it was funny because I was trying to be very diplomatic rather than giving him criticism.
Chinland Guardian: When was the last time you met with your father and is there any hope that you will see him soon?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: I left home in 2006 to continue my studies in the UK. That was my last time I saw my father and I was scared because I felt that I might not see him again in my life. I thought that way because of his political activities and I knew he would get arrested again soon.
Now, he was sentenced to 65 years in prison and I don’t know when I will see him again. At the same time, I try to look at the bigger picture because I am not the only one and there are lots of other people who have been suffering more than a separation from their family. I need to stay strong and stand up for the people who cannot speak out.
Chinland Guardian: Do your family members get access to the prison?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: At the moment, my father is in Taunggyi prison in Shan State and it is more than 450 miles away from Rangoon where the rest of my family is. It is very expensive to go there so my mother and my little sister can only afford to go once in two or three months. It takes them 24 hours by bus and once they arrive there, the meeting time is only about 15-20 minutes. Still my mother thinks it is very important to go and encourage him.
Chinland Guardian: It might seem ‘inappropriate’ to ask you this question but for us to be able to understand a little about the situation you face on a daily basis. What is it like growing up with a father being in prison?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: I would say my childhood was different from the childhoods of my friends or other people in my family. I was only five months old when my father was arrested in 1989 and I did not get to meet him until I was four. Sometimes, I even wondered whether I had a father or not but my mother showed me the photograph of him and taught me how to call him “daddy.” That’s how I learned that I had a father.
When I met him for the first time, it was different from what I imagined as there were iron bars between us and we could only meet about 20 minutes. Even after he was released, I had to worry about whether they would take away my father again or not since there was a military intelligence person visiting our house every night to check on him. I am twenty-two years old but I had only 9 years of living and spending time with my father.
Now I am grown up and I understand things but my sister and other children of political prisoners have to go through the same things as I did. They have to wonder when or how their families will be reunited. The history is repeating.
Chinland Guardian: Recently, you went to refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. What can you share with us from your eye-witnessing experience?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: It was totally an eye opener for me as I could only learn those things from the news or reports before I went there. When I was there, I saw lots of things that I could never imagine. I am particularly interested in education so I went to different schools and met young people there. They are very ambitious and full of dreams but they do not have the opportunity to follow their dreams, as the education over there is very limited. I feel that the world is neglecting them.
The UN always talks about “wait and see” but they do not need to wait and see, if they go and look at the people’s situations in refugee camps: nobody deserves to live in a situation like that. We have our country and we should be able to live freely and exercise the basic human rights in our own country. That trip has motivated me a lot and my decision is very clear now: I will campaign for peace and freedom until every single person in Burma is free.
Chinland Guardian: You have been travelling across the UK and Europe speaking for Burma. Share with us what you are up to now.
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: At the moment I am in London and not travelling that much. I am in my final year university so my agenda for this year is to focus on my studies and carefully dividing time for campaigning as well. I do not feel overwhelmed as campaigning is what I feel passionate about and I can relate a lot to my studies as well. There are regular invitations to speak at public meetings. There will be debriefing meeting with Amnesty International and International Secretariat regarding about my Thai-Burma trip.
The main issues we have been campaigning on at Burma Campaign UK are for a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the release of political prisoners. But we work on most issues relating to Burma, and get many enquiries from media and governments.
Chinland Guardian: How were the responses?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: We worked with many organisations on the push for a Commission of Inquiry, and even though we didn’t get an Inquiry in the new UN General Assembly Resolution, we always knew that this would be a difficult and long-term campaign. The fact that the EU and others were having to pay attention to the crimes taking place, while the government claims it is reforming, was good at reminding the world what is going on the ground in Burma.
The British government is one of the strongest governments on Burma, and this is a result of the strong campaigning in Britain.
Chinland Guardian: Some people claim Burma will be the same with this new government and the international communities seem passive just waiting for what will come next. Maybe another 20 years of waiting again with no actions?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: Yes, some people do say that and feel helpless rather than doing something about it. 20 years ago, we did not have the technologies to create networks and do global campaigns. Now, we have those amazing technologies to use in our campaigns.
Also, what we need is unity inside and outside the country. Everybody has their own opinion and we have to find a way to work together productively rather than arguing about different things. We need more young people to get involved in the moment and to do so we need the knowledge and participation from the elders. We have to start learning things and getting involved in any way we can to help our society and the country.
Now the new government in Burma released some political prisoners to try to get sanctions lifted and they had a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. These events mean that pressure is working, and we need to get united and push harder to the international community for actual action.
Chinland Guardian: Last year, you had a bungee jump for freedom in Burma. Tell us more about it and how this kind of campaign works.
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: It was to raise fund for Burma Campaign UK and former political prisoners who are in the refugee camps. I wanted to help those people who are still suffering and losing hope for their future. Also at the same time, it can prove that if you have freedom, you can transform the fun thing into an awareness-raising event to help the people in need. I got that idea from a tourism program on the television and I decided to try that out.
Chinland Guardian: Anything you would like to say to the Burmese community in UK and across the world.
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: We might be coming from different backgrounds and religions, and speak different languages but we are fighting for the same thing. We have to be united and find a way to help our brothers and sisters who are suffering in Burma. It is very important to let them know that we are here for them but to do so we need to be united first. Also as I said before, we need more young people to speak out and learn from our previous generation. I believe that if we are united and together, we can bring democracy, peace and freedom to our country.
Chinland Guardian: Have you got to say anything to the new government and people in Burma?
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon: For the new government in Burma, they need to try harder to convince us that the change is coming to Burma. They need to stop all the human rights abuses and release all the political prisoners in Burma. I will stand up for the people of Burma to tell the world about their sufferings and keep working with others to help bring freedom in Burma.
Interview by Van Biak Thang