When Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta region of Burma in May 2008, student activist Phyo Phyo Aung was in hiding. She had gone underground six months earlier following the government’s brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution, a mass monk-led uprising in which she played a prominent role.
The cyclone devastated the delta region and killed over 140,000 people. More than a month later, Phyo Phyo Aung learned that dead bodies were still floating in the water and decomposing on the saturated land. So despite the high risk to her personal safety, she left her hiding place and joined her father, Dr Nay Win, and three friends on a mission to recover some of the victims and provide them with a proper burial.
The group spent three days retrieving dead bodies and burying them with traditional rituals. Having accomplished their noble task, they set off on the journey home, but local authorities stopped them in Bogalay and checked their IDs.
Phyo Phyo Aung, her colleagues and her father were immediately detained after their identities were discovered. For the next seven months, she had no contact with her family; then she was charged under sections 6, 7 and 505 (b) of Burma’s Penal Code, accused of forming an illegal organization, contact with outlawed groups and “intent to commit an offense against the State.” After a closed trial, she was sentenced to four years in prison.
As a dedicated political activist and spokesperson for the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) during the Saffron Revolution, Phyo Phyo Aung was mentally prepared to be arrested and had no regrets for herself. But it made her both sad and angry to see her father handcuffed and sent to prison once again.
Phyo Phyo Aung was only nine months old when her father, the head of a short-lived activist group known as the National Political Force, was first arrested in 1989. Over the next 15 years, she saw him only four times. When she went to visit him at Mandalay Prison at the age of 10, she didn’t even recognize him.
“It was when I was in grade five. My mother took me to see him in prison, and I couldn't remember him at all at first,” she said.
But even as a young girl, Phyo Phyo Aung shared her father’s dislike of social injustice, and they remained connected throughout the 15 years that he was behind bars.
Phyo Phyo Aung’s mother raised her during that time and despite the strain of being a young, virtually single parent, was always supportive of both her and her imprisoned father.
“My mom is my role model. She always told me not to have fear, to respect truth and be proud of my father,” said Phyo Phyo Aung.
Having been born in August 1988 at the height of the student-led nationwide protests now known as the 8-8-88 uprising, Phyo Phyo Aung had the spirit of a student revolutionary running through her veins and her mother cultivated that spirit by telling her bedtime stories of the brave 1988 activists.
Both of Phyo Phyo Aung’s parents also nurtured her lifelong reading habit. Her father advised her during prison visits to read any book she could get her hands on that would increase her knowledge, and then repeated that advice in letters when he was moved first to Mandalay Prison and then to the remote Myitkyina Prison in Kachin State.
One of the books that had an impact on Phyo Phyo Aung was “A Lan Ma Hlae Sa Tan” (“Better to Stand and Die”), a novel by prominent Burmese author Win Zaw (aka Lu Htu Sein Win) that revolved around a female hero and inspired the budding activist to new levels of compassion and commitment.
She also read a number of books about the lives of university students, and when her father was released from Myitkyina Prison in November 2004, Phyo Phyo Aung was 16 years old and about to begin her college education.
When Phyo Phyo Aung began her studies at the Government Technological College in Hmawbi, she found that her experience as a university student was totally different from the students in the past that she had read about. The inequality she witnessed spurred a desire to seek justice and students’ rights and led her to join the student movement.
In 2006, she became a member of the “We for All” book club at the American Center, whose members worked to reform the ABFSU—an umbrella organization of student unions that had been forced underground after the government crackdown on the 1988 uprisings—and devoted themselves to involvement in Burma’s political and social movements.