By Lucia Jervis
As an advocate for human rights in Myanmar, Khin Zaw Win was invited aboard the World Odyssey to speak on his work in trying to improve his country, Myanmar, by helping to provide freedom, less fear, and more justice.
Born in Myanmar, Win started promoting human activism when he was working in Malaysia. He had noticed that in Myanmar, convicts were abused and forced to do manual labor in poor conditions.
“I came back to Myanmar and things were going very much downhill. It was damaged economically, politically and also in terms of censorship and repression,” Win said. “Let’s say 1988 was the turning point for me and for much of the country. I was 38 at the time.”
In 1988, Win witnessed a peaceful student protest at Yangon University. Win later found that those inside the university were arrested and the students that spoke out were shot and murdered. This event struck Win and inspired him to work harder to defend the rights of his people.
“I know what happened in the Holocaust… about the human-made disasters that can happen in the world… I knew that these horrible things happened, but I didn’t expect them to happen in my own country,” Win said. “… Everything is very secretive. Some names and some issues are unmentionable and almost taboo, like the word Rohingya (nowadays), but somehow, I spoke up. It was very simple for me; it was not about being a hero.”
Win knew that if he became an activist, he would also become a target. While Win was completing a Masters program in Singapore, he came back to Myanmar to conduct research for a paper he was writing on Myanmar’s constitution. While he was waiting to board a plane back to Singapore, he was arrested.
“I thought it would just be a normal thing but I was taken blindfolded, to an interrogation center at night. I was in that interrogation center for 11 days in a closed cell, I was fed regularly, I couldn’t wash myself very much, I had a comfortable bed, but interrogations went around the clock,” Win said.
Four charges were leveled against Win: seditious writings, contact with unlawful organizations, official secret sect and breaking the foreign currency act. He was found guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“They wanted me behind bars because I was active in human rights, but I was not really opposing them, I wasn’t advocating terrorism, but sometimes these guys know so little about the world that they get paranoid for the wrong things,” Win said.
Win served 11 years in prison. Instead of talking about the negative effects of prison, he explains how he was able to build relationships, teach people English, economics, political science, and practice his religion, Buddhism.
“When people asked me, ‘how did you keep going?’ I tell them it’s very simple. Religion played a part, but as Nelson Mandela would say, it’s your concern for your fellow men, caring for your fellow men and as the reverend Martin Luther King said, that if you think about just yourself you’re nothing, what gives you worth is your care for humans,” Win said.
Semester at Sea Professor Alex Nalbach attended to a lecture given by Win at the MV World Odyssey during the Spring 2018 Voyage before the ship arrived Myanmar. After listening to Win’s story, Nalbach was inspired.
“I’m extraordinarily impressed with him, not only in terms of his personal endurance, having gone through what he’s done, his level of commitment to the things that he thinks are right, but also the sense of optimism that he exudes about the future in a country where I think it would be very easy to succumb to despair,” Nalbach said.
Win continues to advocate for human rights and promotes positive change in his country after his imprisonment.
“I wanted to see the kind of advances and developments that were happening in the rest of South East Asia happen in Myanmar,” Win said. “It took a lot of time and a lot of doing, but the things that I had in mind at the time, are at least now happening to some extent - freedom of expression, relatively free press - but it took a long time, more than we thought.”