Editor’s Note: Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is a Burmese human rights activist working for the nongovernmental organization Burma Campaign UK. She has been advocating for human rights and federal democracy in Burma, now widely known as Myanmar, for over a decade. Wai Hnin is also a fellow of the Renew Democracy Initiative’s Frontlines of Freedom project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I was 4 years old when my mom took me to meet my dad for the first time. I thought we were traveling to a park or a playground, but then we arrived outside Insein prison in Rangoon (present day Yangon), Burma, and I was even more impressed. It was a massive compound with an imposing red entrance and more guards than I could count.
“Is daddy very wealthy?,” I asked. My mom told me to keep quiet and stay close to her. Men in uniform drilled her with questions, while other guards rummaged through the gifts that we had brought for my dad.
After waiting for hours in the scorching sun, we were finally allowed into a room where we met a man dressed in all white, and in handcuffs and shackles. I recognized him instantly – this was my father whose photo had hung on a glass cabinet in my house for as far back as I could remember. His wild hair from the photo wasn’t so wild anymore, but he still had that friendly smile on his face. I wanted to hug him, even though there were iron bars between us. I reached out my fingers so I could at least touch his hand.
Although this first meeting happened almost three decades ago, I can so clearly remember it. That was the day I realized that my dad was a prisoner being kept by these guards. And those “gifts” that we brought for him? They were essential food and medicine, which he needed to stay alive behind these foreboding concrete walls.
My father was first sent to prison for leading a peaceful protest against the Burmese military dictatorship in 1988. He was among thousands of students who marched on the street calling for democracy, human rights and freedom in my country. Since then, he has been in and out of prison for continuing to protest military rule and advocating for human rights.
But his commitment to helping build a lasting democracy in Burma has taught me that an equal and just political system is not a guarantee. It requires hard work, and it could come with serious consequences – not just for my family or country but for the world at large.
Following my first meeting with my father, I began to study the history of Burma. I learned that it had been under an oppressive military dictatorship since 1962. I also read how the military ruthlessly killed many peaceful protesters during the 1988 uprising and how they imprisoned thousands of civilians for simply believing in democracy and freedom. Though military regimes have come and gone since then, the military today – though it denies its brutality – continues to commit atrocities with impunity, according to the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The more I learned, the more certain I was that I needed to follow in my father’s footsteps. Though my father urged me to choose a different path, I refused to heed his warnings.
I thought I might pursue teaching, since I believed education could play a crucial role in driving social change and empowering young people to fight for their rights. But because of my father’s political activities, I was denied entrance into any Burmese university. And so, in 2007, I arrived in the United Kingdom to study international relations. That same year, my father was arrested a second time for leading another peaceful protest. Even though I was thousands of miles away, I started campaigning for the release of all political prisoners in Burma – including my father.
But what I had not fully anticipated was the consequence I would face from the Burmese government. Having used my voice abroad, I could no longer return home without facing the possibility of arrest. I subsequently became a political dissident in exile.
In 2008, caving to a combination of internal and external pressures, the Burmese military regime drafted a new constitution, which while safeguarding much of their power, offered limited democratic and social reforms. Two years later, they released Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader who had spent nearly 15 years in detention, and allowed her to stand for elections in April 2012.
For the United States and much of the international community, Suu Kyi’s freedom – and her party’s sweeping electoral victory in 2015 – marked a significant milestone in my country’s journey toward democracy. But it did not fully capture the subtle and not so subtle ways that the military continued to hold a tight grip on Burma.
While the new constitution and Suu Kyi’s government provided a wider space for civil society – and greater access to tools like social media and the internet – the military still had guaranteed ministerial posts and appointed a quarter of MPs in the parliament. And while many of these social reforms were enacted in cities, the military was continuing to torture, rape and kill ethnic civilians in more rural areas, according to an independent report requested by the UN Human Rights Council.
Despite warnings from human rights activists like me that the reform process in Burma was designed to keep the military in power, the international community largely ignored our concerns. Meanwhile, many activists in Burma who spoke out against the military and demanded genuine democracy were arrested and thrown in prison.
In late 2016, when the military began perpetrating what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, it seemed like things might be reaching a breaking point.
Finally, we thought, the international community would wake up to the atrocities being committed in Burma and come to our aid. Except this aid largely took the form of sanctioning a few Burmese military generals, freezing their assets and banning them from traveling to the US.
It’s no wonder Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Burmese military, calculated that he could get away with staging a coup in February. The same day the coup began and Suu Kyi was arrested on trumped up charges, the military came for my father, who had most recently been released from prison in 2012. As a prominent democracy advocate, the military undoubtedly considered my father a troublemaker, and they arrested him before he could mobilize any anti-coup movement.
But it wasn’t just him. Many others were taken from their homes across Burma to prisons they may never leave. I am heartbroken for my father, but I cannot stop thinking about the other children now condemned to go through what I went through – not knowing where their parents are or when they will see them again.
I am encouraged to see that when the coup began, the US government took immediate action against the Burmese military by imposing targeted sanctions. But we need more. The US and the greater international community need to use all the tools at their disposal – diplomatic, humanitarian, economic and legal – to help people in Burma.
Activists inside and outside the country have been calling for a global arms embargo to stop the flow of weapons to the military, additional sanctions on gas revenues that help fund the Burmese military, and support for efforts to report the military’s violent actions to the International Criminal Court.
Though I do not know when my father will be released from prison this time, or when I will be able to go home safely, I will continue to speak out against the military and amplify the voices of people in Burma who have been oppressed by the brutal military regime. Yes, the Burmese military denies this oppression and says it’s part of its fight against terrorism, but the truth is that we are being persecuted.
Despite the ongoing use of violence, I refuse to believe the Burmese military has won. People like my father and many others like him continue to risk our lives for the sake of freedom. And with the aid of the US and the rest of the free world, we might just have a chance to help the people of Burma achieve true democracy.