Diakonia - People change the world

Aung Myo Min has found the right path

He’s lived in the jungle with the Myanmar guerilla, been forced into exile for 24 years, been disowned by his mother and harassed for his homosexuality. People who hear the dramatic story of his life ask him how he can still be smiling.

11/11/2015 Publisher: Victoria Gillberg

“I’m not alone anymore,” replies human rights activist Aung Myo Min, with tears in his eyes. 

When did your political awakening occur?
“I knew something was wrong in this country, but I didn’t know what. It was only during the student uprising of 1988, when I saw a student get fatally shot and the media reported it as an accident, that I realised that the authorities controlled everything and were painting a false picture.”

What happened?
“I led the first student protest in my hometown on 8 August 1988. My friends didn’t understand how I could take on the role - I was such a quiet and shy student. And my family didn’t want me to get involved. It was illegal and many activists were arrested and just disappeared without a trace. But I had a strong will to fight for justice,” says Aung Myo Min, going on to say that:

“Immediately after that there was a coup d’état. The military seized power and started to look for student leaders. I and many others fled to the jungle and the border with Thailand, where I joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, ABSDF, a guerilla movement consisting of around 6,000 young people - students and others.

What was the aim of the ABSDF?
“To start with we wanted to avenge the military’s brutal way of putting down the demonstrations,” he says, but quickly adds that his own role concerned negotiation and organization rather than combat.

“I wasn’t good at fighting,” he says, laughing.

What did you learn from your time in the guerilla?
“I was afraid to go to the jungle and the border area where many ethnic minorities lived. I only had the authorities’ picture of these groups - that they were armed criminal rebels. But the reality was the opposite. I realised I’d been brainwashed. These groups didn’t want to divide the country; they wanted their independence while simultaneously being part of a federal state. And they were in an incredibly vulnerable situation.”

Human rights born in our hearts

“It turned into a lesson in empathy. It felt like I took a degree from the university of life and came to understand why human rights are so important to people in general, and to ethnic minorities in particular. Human rights are not something that comes from the UN - they come from our hearts.”

Aung Myo Min visited Sweden and Diakonia’s headquarters in autumn 2015 to take part in various different events regarding human rights. This included the documentary about his life, “This Kind of Love”, being shown.

But it was tough. Everything Aung Myo Min had learned at university was about Shakespeare and didn’t work in the jungle, he says with a laugh.

“We were a strange bunch. We didn’t know how to survive, we didn’t even know how to cut down bamboo,” he says and explains that the branches of the bamboo are so entwined with other trees so that they don’t fall to the ground if you cut the tree at the root without stripping the branches off first.

“But we learned in time. We were a large group and the fact that we shared the same vision of the future helped.”

Study grants

Gradually Aung Myo Min got the opportunity to study at Colombia University in New York, USA, thanks to Amnesty.

“It enabled my work and my life to evolve. When I returned to Thailand in 1995 I wanted to contribute my knowledge of human rights.”

For 24 years he lived in exile in Thailand, where he worked for the Myanmar government in exile. But he gradually founded the organization Equality Myanmar, which Diakonia supports.

Wanted to give back

“I had been working on documenting the situation of Myanmar refugees. It was so depressing and difficult. I didn’t know how to give something back. So I founded the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, HREIB (now Equality Myanmar), to educate people in their rights and give them a better opportunity to hold those in power accountable.

“I founded HREIB on my birthday, and at that time I was the only member. That was 15 years ago. Today we have 42 employees, two offices and 150 educators, which I’m very proud of. 

Where does your commitment come from?
“I was born like that - as a child I couldn’t stand injustice or bullying. My mother raised me to always tell the truth and help other people. I haven’t thought about that before, but it’s probably down to her.”

What has Diakonia’s support meant?
“It’s been important. I really appreciate that Diakonia included HBTQ issues in their support. They were almost the only ones who did so in the beginning.”

What’s your own situation like today?
“I live openly as a homosexual with my partner and my son. This is something I’m proud of, that I live openly today - that my homosexuality is no longer a secret.”

After 24 years in exile, he was finally allowed to return to Myanmar. His plan was to live with his mother and reclaim all his lost years, but it didn’t work out.

“You know, she treated me like a child, as if I was a five-year-old - she meddled in everything.” 

So he moved out. 

Living with a guilty conscience

“According to Myanmar tradition the oldest son is the one who should take care of his parents. And sometimes I feel guilty about not doing it,” he says with tears in his eyes.

“But my mother usually says that she’s OK and that I’m taking care of so many other families - and that’s the important thing.”

And when I ask him how he has the energy to continue fighting for human rights, he replies:

“Because I can see the fruits of the seeds I’ve sown, and I’m no longer alone - that’s why.”