Beauty queen takes Myanmar’s democratic fight to international stage

April 5, 2021 - 3:47 PM
Han Lay, Miss Grand Myanmar prepares before an interview with Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand, April 2, 2021. (Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

BANGKOK — Myanmar model Han Lay did not win last week’s Miss Grand International beauty pageant, but she’ll be remembered as one of its most impassioned contestants.

The 22-year-old made heads turn in Thailand on Saturday during an emotive speech where she pleaded for “urgent international help” for her country, the same day 141 demonstrators were killed in a crackdown by military rulers she said were selfish and abusing their power.

On Friday, she said her compatriots in an anti-coup movement would not back away from a struggle that has so far claimed close to 550 lives in the two months since the generals overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.

“I can say one thing, that we Myanmar citizens will never give up,” she told Reuters.

“They told me that they will fight on the street and I’m also fighting my way on the stage now. So I think that if they will not give up, we will win.”

Myanmar has descended into chaos since the coup, with daily demonstrations and strikes designed to cripple the country’s administration, many of which have been lethally suppressed by security forces with live ammunition.

The victims have mostly been young people, born in the latter years of the military’s half-century rule before it made way in 2011 to brief era of democracy and economic reform.

Recalling Saturday’s contest, she said her speech, during which she fought back tears, triggered deep sorrow that she has been unable to contain.

“I controlled my feeling at that time because I need to speak out during two or three minutes to all the world,” she said.

“I need to speak out,” she said. “I cried a lot and also the whole night when I arrived back to my room I cried a lot. Until now when I speak out about Myanmar I cry a lot too.”

She said she was unable to focus on the competition and felt guilt about people suffering back home.

“Beauty queens need to smile every time, need to connect with every people, very personally,” she said.

“I can’t be happy here because (while) I do daily activities here, so many people died in Myanmar.”

The competition’s founder, Nawat Itsaragrisil, said Han Lay’s decision to speak out against the junta means she will have to stay overseas.

“If she (is) going back to Myanmar right now, she is not going back home, she is going to jail,” he said. —Writing by Martin Petty, Editing by William Maclean