Khin Lay: Secret Book Clubs

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Khin Lay is a Burmese civil society and political activist. She was born in Yangon in 1971.

She pursued a career in education, hoping to be a university professor. That ambition changed after Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, inspired Khin Lay to take an active role in freeing her country. In 1995, Khin Lay joined Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

As a member of NLD, Khin Lay endured constant surveillance by the regime. In 2000, she was arrested by authorities for her involvement with the party. After five days of interrogation in which she was blindfolded and deprived of sleep, Khin Lay spent four months in Insein Prison, a facility notorious for its deplorable conditions and use of torture. She was released in 2001.

More recently, Khin Lay has focused on strengthening women’s rights and building a more robust civil society. She founded the Triangle Women Support Group, an organization dedicated to empowering Burmese women, developing their political and professional skills, as well as encouraging greater participation in public life. She believes that fostering a new generation of strong, female leaders is a key component to Burma’s democratization.

Of course, this was one of the regular activities [the primary opposition National League for Democracy’s (NLD) book club] for the youth because we usually did it twice a month, so – for particular books, you know, they announced – the organizer announced that next week they were going to discuss about a specific book. They will give the name and title and we read the book and after the – on the book club day, we discuss the books. And moreover, we discussed about the present political situation related to the book and – so we can exchange our experience and news and information and we can exchange our opinions about the present situation, not only from the book but also in the outside.

So this is one of the regular activities of the NLD youth movement. And again, there was also lecture program, presentations we called. Presentation – there was a senior NLD member. They gave presentations to the young people. So we listened to their presentation, and after that we asked the questions that we can’t understand and we didn’t know the history of our country that like that, there was a section.

We have learned a lot from our lectures, NLD’s headquarters usually makes them regular activities. So we learned a lot about such things, ANC [African National Congress – a South African liberation movement that has governed the country since its transition to democracy in 1994], South Africa, Nelson Mandela [a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994-1999]. And also The Lady [a nickname for Aung San Suu Kyi] frequently mentioned Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel [a playwright and poet who played a leading role in bringing an end to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia 1989–92 and the first president of the Czech Republic 1993–2003] and Martin Luther King Jr. [a prominent African-American civil rights leader].

So we have heard a lot about their movement. And also we have learned from the books that we – I like history books, so we have learned a lot from the histories and also Mahatma Gandhi [the leader of India’s independence movement who inspired nonviolent movements for civil rights and freedom worldwide]. There are many movies about Mahatma Gandhi or, yes. But frankly speaking, we just practice by ourselves. We learn from our own experience, but we have – you know – in a book club, we discuss about such kind of topics and books and there are some translations of books about Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or many other people, very famous people.

So we can share the experience – we can share information and we can learn about them through the book club and book reading club. So on that, we keep going forward. But frankly speaking, we have never got any training or workshop from such kind of thing to do systematically.

The Vaclav Havel Center