YANGON, Burma (Myanmar) — Just a few months ago, Sandar Min was one of thousands of political prisoners languishing behind bars in a Burmese prison. She spent her days chatting to fellow inmates and trying to lay low.
“We did not know how long we would be there for, the time just went on,” she said in a recent interview.
Unlike many who were tortured in prison, Sandar Min was able to escape punishment through "negotiation," as she calls it.
“It was just a matter of compromise, like everything in Burma,” she said with a cheeky grin. “I just had to find an understanding with my guards, and look for the human inside them."
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And a politician was born.
Sandar Min's sincerity and ability to win hearts first led her into a life of activism. Then, upon release from prison on Jan. 13 — as part of a government amnesty for 600 prisoners, at least 200 of which were incarcerated on political charges — these attributes quickly appealed to the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Party leaders tapped her to run for one of the parliamentary seats that are up for grabs in the coming by-elections on April 1.
“I knew I wanted to be a politician towards the end of my prison term, but I did not expect things would happen this quickly,” Sandar Min, now 45 but looking a decade younger, told GlobalPost from her downtown home in Yangon, the former capital of Burma.
The makings of a politician
Sandar Min first became involved in politics during the 1988 uprisings. At the time, she was studying chemistry and joined thousands of students who took to the streets demanding an end to military rule. The regime responded brutally. Thousands were killed. Many more were thrown in prison.
Sandar Min was part of the "Tri-Color" student group, which coordinated the student movement and acted as security for democracy icon and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result, Sandar Min was arrested and sent to prison.
Following the uprising, the military regime agreed to hold an election in 1990, which they believed they would easily win. When Suu Kyi and the NLD won, the regime's leaders promptly put Suu Kyi under house arrest and threw most of her party in prison.
Unlike many of her fellow prisoners, Sandar Min was released after three years.
“I was lucky, some of my colleagues stayed in jail for nearly 20 years,” she said.
Many of her best friends and colleagues were finally set free in 2007. They were all part of the "88 Generation" group, a term later coined for the most prominent activists in the 1988 uprising.
Soon after their release, the regime hiked up fuel prices almost tenfold, leaving people unable to get to work, as they could not afford to ride the bus.
Again, the 88 Generation students took to the streets.
“It was such an important time for our country, I had to stand in the front,” said Sandar Min, talking about her decision to join the protests.
And again, she was sent off to jail, this time for five years.
These demonstrations turned into a nationwide uprising with hundreds of thousands of participants. The regime brutally cracked down, echoing its response in 1988.
“This time the whole world saw the demands of the Burmese people, and how the regime responded,” she said. “I think it brought us where we are today.”
The government's poor response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 130,000 people in Burma in 2008, also motivated activists to renew their cries for change. Initially, the junta refused to let in foreign aid to help those in Burma affected by the storm.
Burma's 2010 election was initially deemed neither free nor fair. But despite that fact, the government has been introducing reforms at a remarkable rate.
Just six days after the election, the regime released Suu Kyi from house arrest, where she had spent more than 14 of the last 20 years. Other reforms have ranged from prisoner releases to a cease-fire with the ethnic Karen rebels.
“The change between when I went to prison in 2007 and now is so much,” Sandar Min said.
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited, signalling closer ties between the two nations. Many say the lifting of sanctions isn't far off.
But for all of Sandar Min's optimism that Burma is on the right track, she is wary. The country's new president, Thein Sein, does genuinely want to improve the country, she said, but she's skeptical of others' motives.
“Some people from the former regime have accepted that changes are important, but others are more worried about losing their power than the wellbeing of the country,” she said. “We have to make sure we support and encourage Thein Sein and those who want change.”
Sandar Min asks that the international community not lift sanctions after the by-elections, assuming they are successful. Even if NLD wins all 47 of the 48 seats it is contesting in the upcoming election, she said that it won't mark a significant shift in the government.
“The international community must wait till the 2015 elections when all the seats are open,” she said. “If the NLD can freely contest every seat, then we will know it is time to lift sanctions.”
Sandar Min has plans once in office. She wants to give electricity, roads and education to the farmers in her township, and she wants to draft a law that will allow farmers to own their land.
But her campaign has not been without problems. Several NLD billboards have been torn down and she says government servants are still scared to openly support her. It has also been difficult for them to get permission to hold rallies in their townships.
Sandar Min has also faced personal attacks. Photos of her with Htay Kywe, an 88 Generation leader, have been distributed around the markets with the slogan, “What is their relationship?” written at the bottom, insinuating a relationship that would offend most people in culturally conservative Burma.
But Sandar Min brushes off such attacks. “Maybe they are trying to make a Monica Lewinski scandal,” she said, laughing.
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