A child of the revolution seeks office to fulfil a youthful ambition 

Hnin Hnin Hmway knew early in life that she wanted to be an educator. But before she could realize her dream, her world was turned upside down: A nationwide uprising against military rule became a decades-long struggle, and like so many others of her generation, she had to put her personal goals on hold. 

Now, more than 30 years later, she says her passion for education is as strong as ever. And she promises that if her bid to enter parliamentary politics in next month’s election is successful, she will make educational reform her top priority. 

“A good education law is one of the fundamental necessities of the country, and so I want to amend the existing law so that it will be in line with democratic standards and our desire for peace,” she said. 

As a candidate for the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) running in Yangon’s Botahtaung township, Hnin Hnin Hmway has a wealth of political experience, even if she has never held elected office.

In recent years, she has been involved with the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), which spearheaded opposition to the 2014 Myanmar National Education Law, introduced by the quasi-civilian government of former general Thein Sein.

“It’s important for forces inside parliament to join hands with forces outside,” said Hnin Hnin Hmway

Criticized for ignoring the input of students, the law provoked major protests that ended in a violent crackdown the following year. Since then, little progress has been made in meeting the demands of those most affected by the law.

“I think the education law we have now is on the wrong track. We tried to amend it, but haven’t been able to do so yet,” said Hnin Hnin Hmway. 

An even bigger problem, she said, is Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which grants 25 percent of seats in parliament to unelected military representatives. This provision, which makes it impossible for elected lawmakers to amend the army-drafted charter, is completely at odds with democratic principles, she said.

Despite her objections to the constitution, however, she has finally decided to run for office in the hope that she will be able to amplify her political message, even if it means working within a deeply flawed system.

“We can speak with a louder voice in parliament. There is nothing we can do to change the constitution, but if we can speak up officially, there’s a chance that our voices will be heard by the international community,” she said.

As someone who has spent much of her life as an activist, she also believes that those in power need to hear what politically engaged people in the wider society have to say.

“It’s important for forces inside parliament to join hands with forces outside. We should listen to the voices of outside forces,” she said.

A life in politics

Hnin Hnin Hmway has been a member of the DPNS since its founding in October 1988. Before that, the then 20-year-old university student was active in the massive pro-democracy protests that had reached a crescendo on “four eights day”—August 8, 1988—only to be brutally crushed a month and 10 days later.

But even earlier than this, her life was steeped in politics. Her father, Kyaw Min, had joined the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in the struggle against colonial rule and later took part in the peace movement led by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing. 

By the time she was born, Myanmar was living under the dictatorship of General Ne Win, but that did not stop her father or his friends from engaging in politics.

“Old politicians often gathered at my house to discuss politics. My uncle was also the secretary of a local peace group, so we always listened to what he said. That’s how I grew up,” she recalled.

“When the schools were closed, we opened our own classes,” said Hnin Hnin Hmway

But her parents always urged her to put her education first. She did well in high school and passed the matriculation exam with distinction. It was while she was in her fourth year at Yangon University that the student-led protests of 1988 swept everything else aside.

She became a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and also joined a local student union in Yangon’s Thaketa township, where she lived. She watched as soldiers raided their office and destroyed signboards and other property. She vowed at that moment never to give up politics.

Dark decades 

After the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) seized power in September 1988, Myanmar was plunged into a long era of oppression. Activists were forced to flee the country or go underground, while schools and universities were repeatedly shuttered, sometimes for years at a time, to prevent students from reigniting protests.

But none of this deterred Hnin Hnin Hmway, who continued her activities despite the constant threat of arrest. 

“When the schools were closed, we opened our own classes. We did this for the benefit of the poor. Whenever public servants faced oppression, we stood with them publicly. This made people in the Tatmadaw very angry with us,” she said.

Any sign of trouble from student protesters inevitably led to a visit by the authorities. In August 1989, a search of her house turned up copies of political statements released by groups opposed to military rule. A month later, she was sentenced to three years in prison.

While she was in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, the SLORC held an election that the National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide. When the regime refused to recognise the result, Hnin Hnin Hmway and other political prisoners staged a strike. For this, she was transferred to Thayarwaddy prison in Bago region, where she remained until her release in 1992.

She wanted to go back to university after this, but that proved impossible because she refused to sign a pledge not to engage in politics. So instead she opted for a distance-education program. In 1995, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history.

During this period, she also continued her political work. She tried to establish contacts between students who had fled to the border to take up arms and those who remained active inside the country. She was under constant surveillance, so she went into hiding as more and more of her colleagues were detained. Then, in January 1997, she was arrested again and sentenced to another three years in prison.

“Laws should not be based only on the orders of higher-ups. The will of the people also has to be considered,” said Hnin Hnin Hmway.

Even this second stint in prison did nothing to dampen her commitment to the struggle. In 2007, she took part in the monk-led protests of the Saffron Revolution, and the next year she was active in efforts to resist the junta’s final push to force its constitution on a country still reeling from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis.

A new era

As Myanmar’s political climate began to change after elections were held for the first time in two decades in 2010, Hnin Hnin Hmway looked for new ways to work for justice. 

In 2012, she joined a committee to support former political prisoners and played a leading role in collecting information about those still behind bars. Of all her political activities over the years, this is the one she speaks of with the greatest pride.

After nearly three decades as a political outsider, she made her first attempt to win public office in 2015, running as a candidate in Mandalay’s constituency 5.

She lost in that election, but now she’s ready to try again.

Even though she has changed her stance on the utility of participating in a political system that preserves military influence, she still believes firmly in the importance of representing the interests of ordinary people.

“Laws should not be based only on the orders of higher-ups. The will of the people also has to be considered,” she said.

As a product of the heady days of the 1988 uprising, she remains committed to the idea that the first rule of politics is to include everyone in decisions that affect them.

This vision of an inclusive system politics also extends to those who are constrained as much by tradition as by poverty or political oppression.

“It is still rare for women to reach high positions in politics. But women should also be decision-makers, and not just members. Real responsibilities should be given to women, and women must fulfil their duties in turn,” she said.

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