Never Say Die
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Never Say Die



A prominent new voice in the world of Burma activism tells a timely tale of survival and determination

Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West by Zoya Phan and Damien Lewis; Simon & Schuster, 2009. P 355
ZOYA Phan was just an infant when she experienced the first of many deaths that were to mar her young life. In this she is hardly unique: As she reveals throughout “Little Daughter,” an account of her life as the daughter of Karen resistance fighters engaged in a lifelong struggle against Burma’s military rulers, death is no stranger to her people, and even the youngest of children are routinely exposed to horrific instances of it.

But in her case, this first death was unusual, because it was her own.

“When I was two years old I died and came back to life,” writes the 28-year-old activist in the opening sentence of her autobiography, setting the stage for a tale of survival that often defies the reader to declare her prospects—and her parents’ political cause—dead, only to prove them wrong.

As its title suggests, this book is very much about the writer’s relationship with her parents, particularly her father, Padoh Mahn Sha, the late general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU). Although it was her mother who saved her from her first “death” by refusing to accept the diagnosis of a poorly trained village nurse (who failed to recognize that she was merely in a fever-induced coma), it was her father who appeared to play the greater role in shaping her aspirations and keeping her hopes alive.

Both parents emerge as tragic, but heroic, figures. Her mother, Nant Kyin Shwe, once commanded a company of women soldiers, but ultimately succumbed to the hardships and sheer misery of life in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. Her father, a man of strong principles and considerable charisma, rose through the ranks of the KNU, only to die at the hands of assassins (most likely from a breakaway Karen group working at the behest of the Burmese army) on Valentine’s Day 2008.

A gifted student, Zoya Phan managed to escape the refugee camps by winning a scholarship to study in Bangkok. After graduating, she briefly flirts with the idea of a “normal” life working for a Thai company. But then she returns to her homeland with a group of fellow students to “bear witness” to the atrocities committed by the Burmese army. What she sees are countless families, terrified and destitute, fleeing to the relative safety of Thailand.

“Each one was like a blow to my heart,” she writes. “And with each I felt my anger and the spirit of resistance rising in me.”

Even before this experience, however, she knew that she was destined—not by fate, but by her father’s wishes—to become a champion of the struggle for freedom in Burma. By naming her Zoya, after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a Russian girl who was tortured and hanged by the Nazis at the age of 17 for her refusal to betray her fellow partisans, her father had clearly singled her out for more than the life of a Bangkok office worker.

Still, it remained far from clear how she would fulfill her role as a defender of the defenseless. It was only after moving to England to study for a master’s degree that she finally found her true calling. Invited to attend her first protest—a demonstration in front of the Burmese embassy in London to mark the 60th birthday of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi—she suddenly had a megaphone thrust in front of her and soon discovered that she was a natural at rallying the troops.

Over the next few years, she attracted national attention with appearances at high-profile events such as the 2006 and 2007 Conservative Party conferences. She has met world leaders and celebrities, and has since become one of the most recognizable spokespersons of the Burmese democracy movement as the international coordinator of the Burma Campaign UK.

In 2007, she scored her first major victory, after successfully lobbying the British government’s aid agency to provide cross-border assistance to internally displaced persons in Karen State.

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