I met my dad for the first time when I was 4, and he was behind bars

Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT) November 13, 2021

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is a Burmese human rights activist working for the nongovernmental organization Burma Campaign UK. She has been advocating for human rights and federal democracy in Burma, now widely known as Myanmar, for over a decade. Wai Hnin is also a fellow of the Renew Democracy Initiative's Frontlines of Freedom project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)I was 4 years old when my mom took me to meet my dad for the first time. I thought we were traveling to a park or a playground, but then we arrived outside Insein prison in Rangoon (present day Yangon), Burma, and I was even more impressed. It was a massive compound with an imposing red entrance and more guards than I could count.

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon
"Is daddy very wealthy?," I asked. My mom told me to keep quiet and stay close to her. Men in uniform drilled her with questions, while other guards rummaged through the gifts that we had brought for my dad.
After waiting for hours in the scorching sun, we were finally allowed into a room where we met a man dressed in all white, and in handcuffs and shackles. I recognized him instantly -- this was my father whose photo had hung on a glass cabinet in my house for as far back as I could remember. His wild hair from the photo wasn't so wild anymore, but he still had that friendly smile on his face. I wanted to hug him, even though there were iron bars between us. I reached out my fingers so I could at least touch his hand.
Although this first meeting happened almost three decades ago, I can so clearly remember it. That was the day I realized that my dad was a prisoner being kept by these guards. And those "gifts" that we brought for him? They were essential food and medicine, which he needed to stay alive behind these foreboding concrete walls.
My father was first sent to prison for leading a peaceful protest against the Burmese military dictatorship in 1988. He was among thousands of students who marched on the street calling for democracy, human rights and freedom in my country. Since then, he has been in and out of prison for continuing to protest military rule and advocating for human rights.
But his 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, and it could come with serious consequences -- not just for my family or country but for the world at large.
Following my first meeting with my father, I began to study the history of Burma. I learned that it had been under an oppressive military dictatorship since 1962. I also read how the military ruthlessly killed many peaceful protesters during the 1988 uprising and how they imprisoned thousands of civilians for simply believing in democracy and freedom. Though military regimes have come and gone since then, the military today -- though it denies its brutality -- continues to commit atrocities with impunity, according to the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The more I learned, the more certain I was that I needed to follow in my father's footsteps. Though my father urged me to choose a different path, I refused to heed his warnings.
I thought I might pursue teaching, since I believed education could play a crucial role in driving social change and empowering young people to fight for their rights. But because of my father's political activities, I was denied entrance into any Burmese university. And so, in 2007, I arrived in the United Kingdom to study international relations. That same year, my father was arrested a second time for leading another peaceful protest. Even though I was thousands of miles away, I started campaigning for the release of all political prisoners in Burma -- including my father.
But what I had not fully anticipated was the consequence I would face from the Burmese government. Having used my voice abroad, I could no longer return home without facing the possibility of arrest. I subsequently became a political dissident in exile.
In 2008, caving to a combination of internal and external pressures, the Burmese military regime drafted a new constitution, which while safeguarding much of their power, offered limited democratic and social reforms. Two years later, they released Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader who had spent nearly 15 years in detention, and allowed her to stand for elections in April 2012.
For the United States and much of the international community, Suu Kyi's freedom -- and her party's sweeping electoral victory in 2015 -- marked a significant milestone in my country's journey toward democracy. But it did not fully capture the subtle and not so subtle ways that the military continued to hold a tight grip on Burma.
While the new constitution and Suu Kyi's government provided a wider space for civil society -- and greater access to tools like social media and the internet -- the military still had guarantee