Smiling, calm and casual, Ma Thida, now 50 years old and the president of PEN International’s Myanmar Centre, looks like a graceful member of the Myanmar elite. But as the world learned from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, under their soft and calm demeanour the women of Myanmar can be strong, courageous and radical.
Ma Thida is a prime example of the tough Myanmar women. An ace student who enrolled in medical school in Yangon when she was only 16, Ma Thida has long been one of the country’s highest profile human rights activists and writers. She joined students protesting against the junta in ’80s, and later become assistant to Suu Kyi. Like thousands of students at the time, she was sentenced to prison in 1993 for her political activities and writings critical of the political system. Serving a 20-year sentence at Insein Prison, she was a hard-headed prisoner. One well known anecdote is when she refused to sign a parcel acceptance slip after finding out that four mangoes from her parents had gone missing. (Prison wards returned the mangoes, rotten, to her parents!)
After her release in 1999 due to health problems and pressure from international organizations, she pursued her dreams, becoming a writer and editor as well as a medical doctor, opening a clinic in Yangon, her hometown. Her books have sold and been translated around the world. In 2011 her novel The Roadmap, written in English and based on the democracy movement, was published under a pseudonym in Thailand.
“When I talk about the cult of dictatorship, it is not about dictators deciding things for people but also about people becoming addicted to someone taking care of and doing something for them.”
She received a fellowship to Brown University and Harvard in 2010, the first time she left Myanmar. She has become an icon for human rights activists and received many awards. She has told the media many times that she believes in criticism as a weapon to develop the country. Needless to say, she does not mince words.
During her last trip to Bangkok, Ma Thida voiced her disdain of “superficial media”, especially foreign media that tended to “oversimplify” Myanmar, focusing on and politicizing Rohingya issues while ignoring poor ethnic groups. She raised concerns about Myanmar workers’ welfare and the “cruelty” they face in Thailand, and said she hopes to write a book reflecting the life of Myanmar migrant workers. She called Suu Kyi a “prisoner of applause” a term she coined two decades ago, albeit out of compassion.
“People do not look at applause as a bad thing,” she said, referring to Myanmar’s current foreign minister. “Yet praise and applause can have a negative effect because they make you fulfil expectations. Indeed, I feel sorry for her. People place expectations on her. They want her to do a lot of things. It’s not fair for anyone to shoulder such a burden. This is how I see her being trapped in a prison of praise.”
Media often ask her about “the Lady” the world’s nickname for Suu Kyi. Ma Thida once worked as a doctor and reporter with Suu Kyi’s entourage when they travelled to meet poor people in various regions in the late ’80s. The work relationship ended when the two ladies parted. The Lady was incarcerated at her home while young Ma Thida went to the notorious Insein Prison, where the junta kept thousands of dissidents.
That was the past. Myanmar is an example of the twists of fate. After the historic November elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) formed a coalition government, and the Lady has become the most powerful person in Myanmar. Ma Thida has not met Suu Kyi for a number of years, nor has she been involved in the NLD. Myanmar has made great strides, but for her the real structural changes are insufficient. Dictators have been replaced but the cult of dictatorship is still alive.
“When I talk about the cult of dictatorship, it is not about dictators deciding things for people but also about people becoming addicted to someone taking care of and doing something for them.” It is a nod to Suu Kyi’s cult status. The Lady, now 71, has a daunting task developing the country, placating the junta, ending separatist insurgencies, dealing with Western governments and media and an overbearing China, to name but a few.
Ma Thida does not seem excited by the political changes. She has said she does not care much about changes of government if the country has a good system in place, but recent changes to the political structure might not be far-reaching enough. The army is less visible but still present. The parliament is partially filled by a quota given to the army to lead major ministries such as homeland affairs, national security and border issues. In short, the political system is democratic yet the elected civilian government is not the sole authority they need to negotiate with the army.
Censorship imposed by the military since 1962 might have officially been lifted. People can enjoy use of the internet and access to private media. But some of the former restrictions still apply. “In practice, the Ministry of Information still makes decisions on what to print and what not to print in state media and it can still infringe on the editorial freedom of private media because it can make decisions on giving publishing and media licences to these private operators.”
For Ma Thida, real change will be possible with greater public participation. Myanmar people and society need a departure from deep-seated bureaucratic culture, where people expect a hero or dictator to do things for them. “The military has created the collective notion that the state and government is the same thing. The military thinks it owns the state and the state does not think it belongs to the people. Citizens also disown the state. The first thing which needs to be done is that people need to feel they are owners of the state.” feel they are owners of the state.” Calm and casual, Ma Thida’s criticisms sound polite, detached, without fear or anger. Such serenity is a new change in her personal life. “When I was younger, I used to be aggressive, angry, arrogant,” she said. “After vipassana mediation, I changed.”
Apart from her writing and human rights campaigns, Ma Thida is known as a devout Buddhist. She has studied and practised vipassana, a form of meditation, since she was young, but she became more experienced in Insein Prison. “Why not take advantage of being in prison to change my life and get out of the cycle to find total liberation… not physical freedom but total freedom? So sometimes I meditated for 20 hours a day.”
Her stirring memoir Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps through Insein addresses vipassana and meditation. The English version was launched in Bangkok in July. The book is well known in Myanmar and has been read by academics and journalists who wish to know more about Myanmar or Suu Kyi Ma Thida wrote at length about the Lady while others read the book because it addresses meditation.