Speeches by beauty pageant contestants rarely make headlines.
But when Han Lay, Miss Grand Myanmar, spoke last week against the alleged atrocities committed by her country’s military, her speech drew attention.
“Today in my country Myanmar … there are so many people dying,” she said at the Miss Grand International 2020 event in Thailand. “Please help Myanmar. We need your urgent international help right now.”
Just over a month ago, Han Lay, 22, was on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, protesting against the military.
The unrest in Myanmar began two months ago when the military seized control of the country, undoing a democratic election in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by an overwhelming majority.
When tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest the coup, the military used water cannons to disperse them. After a week, the answer escalated to rubber bullets and then live ammunition.
The deadliest day of the conflict came last Saturday, when more than 100 people died. A local watchdog group estimates the total death toll at more than 500. According to Save the Children, 43 of the dead were children.
Han Lay, a psychology student at Yangon University, decided to use the contest as a platform to speak about his homeland on an international stage.
“In Myanmar, journalists are in detention … so I decided to speak up,” he told the BBC in a telephone interview from Bangkok.
Now she worries that her two-minute speech could have put her on the military’s radar. He said that he had decided to stay in Thailand for at least the next three months.
Han Lay said he knew before he left for Thailand that he could put himself at risk and would need to stay there for a while.
“I am so worried about my family and my safety because I spoke a lot about the army and the situation in Myanmar. In Myanmar everyone knows that there are limits to talking about what is happening,” she said.
“My friends told me not to go back to Myanmar.”
Your fears are not unfounded. Security forces issued arrest warrants last week for 18 celebrities, social media “influencers” and two journalists under a law against material “intended to cause a member of the armed forces to riot or breach of duty,” they reported. state media. All had spoken out against the coup.
Han Lay said she had not been contacted by the military or any other official after her speech, but said she had received threatening comments on her social media accounts.
“On social media they threatened me, saying that when I return to Myanmar … the prison awaits me,” he said. She doesn’t know who is behind the threatening comments. The vast majority of comments on social media have been supportive, he said.
Many of Han Lay’s fellow students with whom he protested in the first weeks after the coup were jailed, he said. According to the activist group of the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 2,500 people have been arrested in the military repression.
And one of his friends died, Han Lay said.
“He wasn’t even protesting. He went to a restaurant for coffee one night and someone shot him,” he said.
Han Lay’s family is safe, he said, but communication with them is sporadic because the Internet is regularly cut off in Myanmar. He asked that the BBC not publish the name of his hometown, to protect them.
Han Lay’s public political comments, including direct criticism of the Myanmar military and calls in an interview with fans on the contest’s official channel to “win the revolution,” are not common among contest contestants, who often they prefer to remain apolitical.
Speaking before the competition, Lyv Chili, Miss Grand Cambodia, asked fans to stay out of politics.
But Han Lay considers speaking his “duty,” he said. She called Ms. Suu Kyi her “biggest inspiration.” The ousted democratic leader was charged last week with violating Myanmar’s official secrets law, a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.
Han Lay previously planned to train to be a flight attendant after graduation, but said she was not sure now which way to go. Some have tried to persuade her to go into politics, she said, but she doesn’t think it’s for her.
In the meantime, he plans to continue using his voice to speak.
“These are crimes against humanity, so we want the UN to act urgently,” he said. “We want our leader back and we want real democracy to return.”