20211025_voices of freedom_lede essay

Editor’s Note: In this series, “Voices of Freedom,” 13 dissidents from around the world share their stories and make the case for supporters of democracy to fight for restoring and protecting the rights to speak freely and vote in honest elections. They are active participants in Renew Democracy Initiative’s Frontlines of Freedom project.

CNN  — 

Marina Nemat was only 13 years old when the freedom that she had taken for granted – singing in public, wearing a swimsuit at the beach and holding her boyfriend’s hand – was suddenly taken away.

But what shocked Nemat the most was the speed of her nation’s descent into a theocratic regime in 1979. Within a matter of months, she and her fellow Iranians lost the limited rights they had enjoyed under the country’s previous government, itself a repressive monarchy.

When Nemat dared to protest against the new regime, she was arrested and sent to the notorious Evin prison, where she would spend the next two-plus years, released just shy of 19 – alive, but deeply broken. From that traumatizing time, she says she learned “those of us who have experienced what the loss of basic rights looks and feels like have an obligation to speak up.”

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon was already four years old when she first met her father, Ko Mya Aye, a democratic activist who had been sent to prison for leading a peaceful protest against the military dictatorship in Burma (now known as Myanmar) in 1988.

Though at first she thought he was being treated well, the iron bars that prevented her from embracing her father soon jolted Wai Hnin to reality. In that moment, she says, a child became an aspiring voice for human rights, one who would speak out over the nearly three decades since that meeting – as her father was repeatedly imprisoned, most recently after the military’s February coup.

Wai Hnin, now living in exile, writes that her father’s “commitment to helping build a lasting democracy in Burma has taught me that an equal and just political system is not a guarantee. It requires hard work.”