‘It’s not good to back down in politics’ – veteran Muslim activist finally able to contest a seat for the NLD 

Win Mya Mya was a political prisoner when the former military junta held a rigged referendum to force through its new constitution in 2008, just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country, killing at least 138,000. 

Most were too terrified to voice their opposition to the new charter, which has helped the military keep its stranglehold on power despite political reforms. 

But Win Mya Mya, who as a democracy activist and Muslim woman had faced years of persecution, refused to be cowed when she stepped into the polling booth in Mandalay’s Oboe prison.

“I drew a cross on the ballot paper” instead of a tick, she told Myanmar Now. “I even showed it to the prison warden and asked him if I’d crossed it right.”

In 2012, Win Mya Mya was freed in an amnesty as Myanmar’s democratic forces were allowed to operate in the open again and the National League for Democracy (NLD) began vying for power. 

But as the historic 2015 election approached, the activist was denied the chance to become a lawmaker for the party for which she had sacrificed her freedom, because she is Muslim. 

The NLD, apparently cowed by Buddhist nationalist monks making racist anti-Islamic smears against the party, failed to field a single Muslim candidate. 

As the pressure mounted, Win Mya Mya decided to withdraw her application to avoid causing trouble for the party, she said. 

This year though, she and another Muslim cnadidate are standing. Now aged 71, she will compete to represent Sintgaing region in the lower house. 

Win Mya Mya was born and raised in Mandalay. She took part in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and became an NLD activist when the party was founded the following year. 

The 2008 constitution was approved when Win Mya Mya was detained while awaiting a sentence for her participation in the 2007 saffron revolution. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and then sent from Mandalay to Putao prison in Kachin state. 

Win Mya Mya with Thanaka on her cheeks sat in the front row at a meeting attended by Aung San Suu Kyi

In 2003, she was accompanying Aung San Suu Kyi during a campaigning trip when their convoy was attacked by thugs in Depayin. At least 70 NLD supporters are believed to have been killed in the massacre. 

Win Mya Mya was beaten and left with two broken arms, and injuries to both hands. She still has the scars today. 

“They were standing with their hands behind their back and legs apart,” she recalled during an interview at her Mandalay home, where bags of textiles from the family’s clothing store are scattered around and a calendar featuring Aung San Suu Kyi hangs on the wall. 

“When our car approached them, they put their hands out and we saw they were holding batons. They shouted ‘Beat! Beat!’”

She was detained at Shwebo prison for more than seven months after the attack. 

A political family 

Win Mya Mya’s siblings also joined the fight for democracy.

“My brother once said if we got involved in politics, we would probably get to the point where the door to our house would stay locked,” she said. “We all said it was okay, and we actually got to that point.” 

In 2007 the junta shut down the family-owned shop in Mandalay’s Zegyo market as punishment for Win Mya Mya and her siblings’ political activities. 

“We reclaimed our business systematically under the current government. The people involved in the seizure were summoned and interrogated. We got back our shop because it was rightfully ours,” she said. 

“We had to start from the beginning. We are a bunch of 70-something-year-olds still struggling,” she added. 

After 1989, Win Mya Mya and her family members were frequently arrested and interrogated by the military government. Authorities would often detain Win Mya Mya on significant dates, such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday, the anniversary of the 1990 election, or Martyrs’ day.

Win Mya Mya was sentenced to 12 years in prison for her involvement in 2007 saffron revolution (Photo- Min Min/ Myanmar Now)

In 2000 she was imprisoned along with four of her family members. The junta released them the following year. 

“They kept their faith no matter how badly the authorities persecuted them,” said Thein Tan, chairman of the Peace Group, an interfaith organisation based in Mandalay. “The whole family endured the persecution with a smile.”

Ywat Nu Aung, a lawyer from Mandalay, said: “She is very Burmese in her mannerism, speech and attire. Her adoration for Burmese culture is shown in her choice of words and even I have to imitate her.”

For Win Mya Mya, there was never any question of quitting the difficult path she chose in the late 1980s.

“It is not good to back down once you get involved in politics. It is my grace and my dignity on the line,” she said. 

After being unable to stand as an MP in 2015, she served as vice-chair of the NLD for Mandalay region. 

“I am a Muslim and Burmese. I work for Myanmar, Myanmar’s people and Myanmar politics,” she said. “I don’t think about religion. The party officials and the public treat me with kindness. They don’t care which religion I believe in… my religion is not a part of my politics.”

If she wins her seat this year, she can expect to face overwhelming hostility from Buddhist nationalists. But she says she is ready for it.  

“Buddhists believe in karma. Muslims believe in the judgement of god,” she said. “I would not have succeeded if I was too afraid to act… I must do what I have to do.” 

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