Mu Iris Arr Paing was just 21 in 2005, when her uncle suggested that she help him set up an organization protecting the rights of women from the Kayan ethnic group they both belong to. Her uncle was the founder of an ethnic Kayan army and was respected by all those around him. Mu Iris Arr Paing didn’t hesitate when he asked her, but she also didn’t know what it would entail.
The Kayan are one of Myanmar’s myriad ethnic minority groups, living in the northern Kayah and southern Shan states. War and economic hardship caused tens of thousands of people from these regions to flee across the border with Thailand during the country’s 50 years of military rule.
Kayan women are famous for wearing brass bands around their necks as a symbol of beauty and prestige. The older a woman gets, the more bangles she wears, which is why they are often referred to as “Long Necks.” Fewer women wear the bands now, in part due to the controversy caused when Thai businessmen set up tourist villages, likened to human zoos, where the women were put on display to be photographed by foreign visitors.
Knowing she could never set up a women’s rights organization under the military junta, Mu Iris Arr Paing secretly crossed the border to Thailand. She spent five years there running the Kayan Women’s Organization (KyWO) from a tiny office in a bamboo hut, before returning to Myanmar determined to carry on with her work.
After I finished high school I went to stay with my uncle to help around the house. One day he said to me, “We need to work on women’s issues. Our Kayan people are missing out on a lot, we are being left behind.” I was only 21; all I thought of was going out with my friends and having fun. I took a hard look at myself and thought I would be happy to do something for my people.
I was told to leave in secret and not to tell anyone, including my boyfriend. My parents didn’t know either. We were scared that intelligence agents would come and question them. The government had stipulated that only women over 25 could leave Taunggyi [a town in neighboring Shan State seen as a base for those crossing the border].
It was June 13, 2005, around three in the afternoon. An older woman came to pick me up. I left with a small backpack and just two or three sets of clothes. I had no idea when I would come back, no clue about the future. We traveled covertly, sleeping on floors and talking our way through road blocks. Finally, we reached the banks of the Salween river.
Just as we were about to cross, we came across a column of soldiers. There were about 30 or 40 of them. They came after us so we ran for our lives because we feared they might kill or rape us. The water was waist high. We jumped in and ran.
After crossing the river, we fled into an area controlled by soldiers of the ethnic minority Wa, one of several ethnic armed groups operating in the area. It was past midnight and raining. We were all soaking wet and shaking because we were so hungry – we had gone without food for two or three days.
One of the Wa soldiers offered to guide us to Thailand. The journey took about two hours. We walked along a narrow path with a ravine on one side. We couldn’t use torches because Thai patrols might see and shoot at us. We could only hear the sound of insects. If you slipped and fell, you would die.
At around 2 a.m., we reached the Thai border. There was a guardhouse with CCTV. If the camera turned our way we lay flat on the ground, then we ran. We found a fire and some coffee in a hut at the edge of a village, and we collapsed on the ground to sleep there.
That’s how we began. It’s not at all easy to set up an organization. There were only two of us, with no office space and no money or technical knowledge. I didn’t even know how to use a computer. But we wanted to help women back in Myanmar. We focused on raising awareness of women’s rights and smuggled women into Thailand for training sessions and workshops.
In 2006, we opened an office. It was just a bamboo hut that we rented for 800 baht ($22) a month. There was a crematorium out the front and a cliff at the back. We lived and worked there.
It was a really difficult time in Myanmar. We were still under the army junta and everything had to be done surreptitiously. Only a few people close to us knew about the movement. We brought women from Myanmar to learn about gender issues, politics, human rights and democracy. In 2009, we started an internship program and brought women in groups of two or three to spend time studying gender issues.
Once the training was over, they would sneak back into Myanmar and undertake field visits to villages where they would deliver more training to other women and collect information on what was happening there.
Sometimes we worked with women who were victims of domestic violence. We also give counseling and run information sessions on issues facing women, including discrimination and gender-based violence.
My uncle passed away in 2006. I mourned, but I could not go back. I still had a duty to make my vision a reality.
It’s true that our Kayan people were left behind compared to other ethnic minorities. Some of it was because of traditional practices that go back generations. For example, the whole issue of wearing brass neck rings.
I moved back to Myanmar after the election in 2010 – I had a marriage proposal. I’ve known my husband since we were students and he waited nine years for me. He encourages me.
It was still difficult to operate openly as a women’s organization when I came back to Myanmar, so I decided to organize a women’s football tournament. That was one of our strategies: to use sports to engage and empower women. I wanted to do something that had never been done before, to ignite a patriotic spirit and encourage athleticism.
So we held the Kayan Women’s Organization Cup in November 2012. We urged women to organize their own teams. Eight teams participated – there were some very good footballers. We proudly displayed our KyWO flags, gave out stickers and people had our logo on their cheeks. When the KyWO team won the league, the whole football field roared its name. After that, nobody had to ask what KyWO was.
A version of this story originally appeared on The Kite Tales.