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Thein-Lemelson on top left, Pwint Thon on top right, Khin on bottom middle

Two daughters of Burmese political prisoners share their personal experiences growing up and reflect on their father's activism in the democracy movement in Myanmar.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Cycles of protests

"They were not only biological kin to the (previous cohort of) activists...but they were also socialized, even introduced to one another, by the 88 Generation," began Seinenu Thein-Lemelson, a lecturer in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and Senior Research Scientist at the Foundation for Psychocultural Research, as she described the young people who had organized the Saffron Revolution. "So we call this segment “Daughter of Revolutionaries” because it emphasizes this intergenerational component."

On March 12, 2021, Thein-Lemelson organized a teach-in on the Burmese democracy movement. The event, sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, described the historical context of the recent wave of violent raids and extrajudicial killings happening across Myanmar following the February 2021 military coup.

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, who works for Burma Campaign UK, and Phyu Pannu Khin, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Vermont, conversed with Thein-Lemelson about growing up as daughters of political prisoners.

As the moderator, Thein-Lemelson began the panel by reviewing the history of political movements in Myanmar. "The democracy movement did not end in 1988," she stated. "In many ways, [this was when it] began." She covered cycles of protest, including the 8888 demonstrations, monastic strikes in 1990, student movements in 1996 and 1998, civil disobedience campaigns led by the 88 Generation in the early 2000’s, the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and the movement to amend the Myanmar constitution that was jointly led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and 88 Generation between 2013 and 2014.

"With each cycle of protest, there would unfortunately also be cycles of political violence, illegal detainment, imprisonment, torture, confiscation of land and property, destruction of neighborhoods sometimes through arson or demolition, forced relocations, and other forms of political suppression," she said. "There was also a concerted attempt not only to suppress, but to eliminate the people, culture and community of democracy movement."

Thein-Lemelson emphasized that there is a long-standing pattern of atrocities committed against the NLD, 88 Generation, and other political groups.

Early days

"From all the stories I have heard from my father, these days look like a repeat of history," Khin stated. 

She described how her father, U Tint Lwin, took a role in organizing anti-dictatorship demonstrations after he witnessed the brutal killings of street protesters during his time as a university student. His firsthand experience with political violence led him to  organize labor strikes in the 1980s. He was sent to prison for trying to gather evidence on the military's violent suppression of political dissenters and activists. He eventually joined the NLD.

Khin remembered her mother being ostracized because people feared being associated with political prisoners. Her family went to great lengths to hide the fact that her father was in prison during the early years of her life. At school, Khin faced pressure from school officials to align politically with the military and Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). She recalled having to censor her school essays.  She also recollected that students participated in school ceremonies where they were forced to stand outside to greet military generals. Fortunately, by disclosing their family's history, her mother managed to convince school officials to excuse Khin and her sister from participating in these events.

Pwint Thon remembered her mother working hard to support the family financially when her father, U Mya Aye, was imprisoned. She met her father for the first time when she was five years old with iron bars separating them. Growing up, she dreamed of becoming a teacher or majoring in international relations but she was barred from attending university in Myanmar because her father was a political prisoner and had participated in the democracy movement.

Thein-Lemelson described U Mya Aye, one of the founding leaders of the 88 Generation, as a relentless, dedicated revolutionary who continued to engage in activism even after he served seven years in prison for his role in organizing nationwide protests during 1988. Pwint Thon remembered how her father’s activism and idealism was only made possible through the support of her mother. Pwint Thon’s mother patiently taught her about U Mya Aye’s life, while he was in prison, explaining to her who he was and why he had to live far away from them. 

U Mya Aye was rearrested along with hundreds of other activists and political leaders in the early morning hours of February 1st. He remains illegally detained by the military, which has been labeled a terrorist organization inside the country.

Community and resiliency

As a student of clinical psychology, Khin deeply understands the long-term effects of psychological trauma on the body and brain, including the risk of PTSD. "I know that our fathers and our community members are incredibly resilient, but they still need support," Khin stated. "Systemically, we need to better support them."

There are few psychological services for former political prisoners in Myanmar. One such service is staffed by those who are political prisoners themselves. Khin articulated the need for more professional mental health practitioners within the community.

Thein-Lemelson noted that the social movement remained resilient through mutual aid networks, social support, a sense of kinship with one another, and through socialization practices whereby activists taught their children to be proud of their individual and collective histories.

Pwint Thon shared that, despite growing up under the scrutiny of the Burmese government, she has found her voice, both as a daughter of a political prisoner and as a Campaigns Officer for a UK human rights organization. She recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about human rights atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against civilians.

Pwint Thon reminisced about how her father would channel his memories of both pain and perseverance into song and art. "I love writing poems and the reason why I love writing is because of my dad and the 88 Generation," she said. "That's a way of dealing with trauma as well." 

She told childhood stories of her dad playing guitar in the early mornings. She remembers her father organizing a gathering of friends, all former political prisoners, to celebrate her high school graduation. "There is an amazing solidarity…that I saw. It's incredible growing up in this community of people" she added. "There is a great sense of friendship there."


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Published: Sunday, March 14, 2021