Speeches by beauty pageant contestants rarely make headlines.
But when Han Lay, Miss Grand Myanmar, spoke out last week against alleged atrocities committed by her country’s military, her speech turned heads.
“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.”
A little over a month ago, Han Lay, who is 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 during which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party was won by a landslide.
When tens of thousands of individuals took to the streets nationwide to protest the coup, the military used water cannon to disperse them. After every week, the response escalated to rubber bullets then live ammunition.
The deadliest day of the conflict came last Saturday when more than 100 people were killed. A local monitoring group puts the general price at quite 500. According to Save the Children, 43 of those killed were children.
Han Lay, a psychology student at the University of Yangon, decided to use the pageant as a platform to talk out about her homeland on a world stage.
“In Myanmar, journalists are detained so I decided to talk out,” she told the over a phone interview from Bangkok.
She cares now that her two-minute speech could have put her on the radar of the military. She said she had decided to remain put in Thailand for a minimum of subsequent three months.
Han Lay said she knew before she left for Thailand that she would be potentially putting herself in danger and would wish to remain there for a short time.
“I am so worried about my family and my security because I spoke out a lot about the military and the situation in Myanmar. In Myanmar everyone knows there are limits on speaking out about what’s happening,” she said.
“My friends told me to not come to Myanmar.”
Her 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 mutiny or disregard their duty”, state media reported. All of them had spoken out against the coup.
Han Lay said she had not been contacted by the military or the other officials after her speech, but she said she had been on the receiving end of threatening comments on her social media accounts.
“On social media they threatened me, saying once I return to Myanmar, prison is expecting me,” she said. She doesn’t know who is behind the threatening remarks. The vast majority of social media comments had been supportive, she said.