I risked my life fighting for democracy abroad. I won’t let it die in my own home.
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
Twenty-two years ago, I was sentenced to five years in prison in the military dictatorship of Myanmar. So when Michael Flynn suggested a Myanmar-like military coup should happen here, my time in Myanmar as a political prisoner came rushing back.
On February 1st, a military coup ended Myanmar’s fledgling democracy after the most recent election threatened to oust most of the military junta. Since then, over 800 people have been killed and over 5,000 have been arrested. The military justified the coup using eerily familiar words: “the election was stolen,” “there was too much fraud.”
Perhaps that is why Flynn — a former high-ranking general and national security advisor turned conspiracy theorist — answered the question, “I want to know why what happened in Myanmar can’t happen here?” with, “No reason. I mean, it should happen here.” Flynn’s comments yielded rounds of cheers instead of the universal condemnation expected in a democracy.
The anti-democratic forces that stormed the capital on January 6th are still out there. That is no surprise to me, since the leaders of the coup in Myanmar are of the same lineage as the junta who arrested me. Authoritarian instincts do not disappear overnight.
That regime massacred nearly 10,000 citizens for a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, then suppressed the democratically elected National League for Democracy in 1990. Only after years of struggle did that party, and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, eventually take power — only to be overthrown this past February.
When I was a young college student, I felt deep solidarity with the young students of 1988. Ten years later, I became one of the Rangoon 18 (as we were later named), who snuck into Myanmar with pro-democracy leaflets sewn into the linings of our bags and in the soles of our shoes.
After just a few hours of handing out leaflets, I was slapped across the face, grabbed, and arrested. For over a week, I was in jail not knowing my fate and completely cut off from the outside world. I was suddenly shipped off for a sham trial where I was sentenced to five years of hard labor. My group’s failure to return home sparked alarm from our families, national diplomats, and international media. We were ultimately deported instead of facing our sentence but the thousands of political prisoners still locked inside have always stayed with me.
I saw up close what Flynn’s comments look like when fully realized. I am worried that America is on the eve of a similar fate.
In Myanmar, possessing any written literature not approved by the military dictatorship is a crime. Here is the message that earned me a sentence of five years hard labor:
Here in the U.S., in the wake of the George Floyd protests last spring, Republican legislators in at least 34 states have introduced 81 bills to criminalize protest, even though existing laws already punish rioting and violent destruction. In state capitols and in Congress, conservatives are trying to ban the teaching of critical race theory — simply because it acknowledges America’s original sin of racism and white supremacy and that the “more perfect union” of our dreams lies ahead of us.
Meanwhile, Republican activists and elected officials are pursuing wild theories to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Congressional Republicans blocked an independent inquiry into the January 6 insurrection, with one lawmaker famously comparing the insurrectionists who caused the death of a Capitol Police officer to “tourists.”
Where once I could use my freedom — and America’s profession of faith in democracy — as a shield to aid others, today that shield is crumbling.
Collectively, as a country, we view people who disagree with us as radicals who cannot be reasoned with, even though I have seen with my own eyes how people can unite around common ground and make change. My organization, Dream Corps, pushed through bipartisan criminal justice reform, and is currently uniting people across partisan lines in support of climate solutions.
We need more of this kind of bottom-up solutions-focused work, instead of attempts to maintain control in the future through voter suppression, anti-protest laws, and limits on free speech.
What can you do to help? Do not wait until the next contested election to get involved.
Talk to your relatives who feel the election was stolen, even if it is painful. Volunteer as a poll worker or with an organization working to expand access to the ballot. Continue organizing and using your free speech to defend democracy, as organizers did all fall in order to prevent a potential coup.
Choose the radical act of finding common ground with people who disagree with you, in order to rebuild social trust. Support leaders who defend democracy, even if you do not agree with their other views. Put aside partisan blinders in the name of making democracy itself a top priority.
The assault on democracy is real. Myanmar should be a warning to all those who value freedom, not a roadmap for the United States. I risked my life fighting for democracy abroad. I won’t let it die in my own home.