“Young women democracy activists [in Myanmar] have formed networks among themselves to protect and defend their lives at the local level.”
Your activism goes back to the 8/8/88 Uprising – Aug. 8, 1988 – against military dictatorship in Myanmar. What is most memorable from then?
KO: The first experience of my activist life was on March 16, 1988, when I joined a protest with fellow students from the Rangoon Arts and Science University on Inya Road. Riot police brutally cracked down on us. Dozens of students were injured and died while hundreds were detained. I narrowly escaped arrest. That experience of feeling vulnerable and outraged by the police brutality changed my life forever.
I went back home feeling shocked and that night I felt so clear in my head that I would fight for justice and end such brutality. I didn’t know democracy and human rights. But I knew for sure they cannot do this to us. That day, known as Red Bridge Day, changed my life path forever.
What would you most like people to know about your current activism?
KO: Since the attempted coup d’état on Feb 1, 2021, the military has killed more than 2,500 people in cold blood and arrested more than 16,000. Nearly 13,000 remain in detention where torture and ill treatment are routine, including sexual violence. Their violence is unimaginably barbaric.
They have launched over 240 airstrikes targeting civilians across Myanmar. They killed at least 438 men, women and children in 14 massacres. Yet resistance is strong. There were more than 500 anti-junta flash strikes in 49 townships of ten regions in one month alone in the fall.
The people of Myanmar have been deeply traumatized by the military's abuses and oppression for too long -- since 1962. Ethnic and religious minorities have faced systemic discrimination and persecution. The military has enjoyed impunity for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The focus of my work since genocide of the Rohingya in 2017, is to end decades-long military impunity and to seek justice and accountability.
Resistance by brave people has effectively prevented the military from taking over Myanmar. Young people are sacrificing their lives and their futures to free succeeding generations from military tyranny.
Yet, some international parties and agencies treat the junta as if it were a government, lending it legitimacy and undermining the people’s efforts to dismantle the illegal junta’s unconstitutional claim to power.
Worse, the junta is a terrorist organization as defined in Myanmar and international law. International groups and agencies that lend it legitimacy are complicit in the junta's atrocity crimes.
Please share your insight into increased gender-based violence and the difficulty of women’s organizations helping survivors.
KO: The military junta conducted massive arrest of activists, many of whom were young women, at the beginning of the Spring Revolution. I saw media reports on soldiers storming into neighborhoods in Yangon City, shouting at men to come out to be arrested or their wives and daughters would be raped. Reports of sexual harassment and violence in detention increased.
The junta intensified military attacks on communities where local resistance is strongest. This is where reports of women being murdered, raped and subjected to other sexual violence have increased.
It is impossible for women’s organizations to help survivors with normal programs. Young women democracy activists have formed networks among themselves to protect and defend their lives at the local level.
What needs to be done?
The National Unity Government’s ministries of human rights and of women, children and youth have been receiving, investigating, and documenting cases of sexual violence and communicating them to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar established by the UN Human Rights Council.
This military, comprised of the ethnic Bamar majority, has a history of using rape and sexual violence as a weapon to terrorize ethnic and religious minorities such as Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, and Karen, among others. Now they are using the same tactic against women in the Bamar majority where the resistance against them is the strongest. Women in areas under most severe attacks by the military are living in dangerous conditions with lack of security, including food security.
We need international donors to scale up support of local civil society, women’s and humanitarian organizations and networks. We need the United Nations to work in tandem with ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to stop the military’s campaign of terror and to help Myanmar’s democratic revolution succeed.
A recent Special Advisory Council report asserted that the trajectory “currently favors the democratic revolution” and that the junta “may well not survive through 2023.” Do you agree?
KO: Yes, I’ve also observed the military is rapidly losing on the ground as the people’s resistance gets stronger. Thousands of military personnel from the navy, air force and army have defected and joined the people’s revolution. Resistance groups have established local administration with structures and services. Humanitarian aid, health and education services have been established by the National Unity Government - the legitimate elected government of Myanmar - as well as by ethnic resistance organizations.
You returned to Myanmar from exile but had to flee again. What happened?
KO: I was able to return to Myanmar in 2012 when the quasi-military government invited the 88 generation activists from exile. But their “welcome” lasted only two years. I was under surveillance 24/7. I was followed everywhere. My phones were tapped.
Regardless, I carried out my democracy and human rights work and joined the larger civil society movement pushing for genuine democratic reform. I led the organizing of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum in 2014 when Myanmar chaired ASEAN.
It all came to an end in February 2015 when the military tried to detain me after I joined a movement calling for an independent investigation into the rape and murder of two young Kachin teachers by the Myanmar military in northern Shan State. I knew I had to retreat immediately. I had prepared myself for such a day. From day one, I never trusted the military’s claim of transition to democracy.
What motivates you day today?
KO: My belief in humanity, human dignity, freedom and justice. My belief that Myanmar people deserve to live in dignity, free from discrimination, oppression, persecution, violence, brainwashing and coercion.
I may not live to see the day, but I feel at peace knowing there is a young generation fighting for their rights. As an old generation activist, I have been so fortunate to have the chance to support them and amplify their aspirations for freedom and political liberation. This motivates me day to day.
Khin Ohmar is a global activist against the atrocities of the military junta in Myanmar. She has campaigned against military rule, mostly from exile, for more than three decades. She leads the civil society network Progressive Voice.
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Khin Ohmar is the Chairperson of the Advisory Board, Progressive Voice
Facebook: Progressive Voice
ABOUT THE 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN
The 2022 Nobel Women's Initiative's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign features interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, these human rights defenders pursue peace as one pathway to reducing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.