Personal history | Myanmar

“I always knew what I wanted”

Doctor and author, Ma Thida, spent a long time in prison as a result of fighting for democracy in Myanmar. Regardless, she hopes to return to her country soon
 A portrait of Ma Thieda, aged around 55. Her hair is chin-length, she is wearing a dark sweater and glasses and is looking past the camera on the right.

My parents' marriage was arranged, but it was a good match for both of them. My mother worked as a teacher in the east of Myanmar, my father as an accountant in the south-west. They moved together to Yangon, the capital at the time, where they had three children as planned.

I was born in 1966 as the eldest, followed by my two brothers. I started reading at the age of three and made it my main occupation. My passion went so far that at some point I considered it a betrayal of books to interrupt my reading.

In the evenings, when I should have been in bed, I would often sit between my parents and overhear some of their discussions. They talked about poverty under the socialist regime and how there was a lack of everything everywhere, about the civil war and all the constraints that people in Myanmar had to live with at that time.

“Meditating later helped me during my time in prison”

When my grandmother fell ill, my grandparents moved in with us. My father and grandfather listened to the BBC. We all fought with my grandmother about who was allowed to read the daily newspaper first.

My grandfather had taken part in strikes as a teenager and was expelled from school as a result. He came from a rich Chinese family, taught me to think critically and told me stories about his rebellion against the British colonial power. My father, meanwhile, taught me to be a good citizen.

My mother and grandmother, in turn, were into religion and introduced me to Buddha's teachings. Meditating later helped me during my time in prison.

Ma Thida stands in the center of the picture at a young age with a microphone in her hand. She is wearing a long red robe. Two men and a woman are standing around Ma Thida.

Ma Thida speaks during a demonstration


I was often ill as a child. Once I had to go to hospital for a long time and my condition didn't improve. One day, three monks who regularly came to eat with us asked after me.

When they heard about my condition, they advised my parents to check my medication. They said they were probably counterfeit and completely ineffective. And so it was. Perhaps my desire to become a doctor grew out of this experience.

My father told me that I should go into medical research as a scientist, that there were enough doctors in the country. But I always knew what I wanted.

During my studies, I started writing and published my first stories. I also joined Aung San Suu Kyi's democracy movement, wrote pamphlets and organised demonstrations. After Kyi won the parliamentary elections as opposition leader in 1990, the military regime did not accept the result and we rebelled against it.

“The woman in the neighbouring cell bribed the guards and was able to smuggle books into the prison”

In 1993, I was finally arrested and sentenced to 20 years in Insein prison. That didn't scare me that much given that some of my friends had already been sentenced. I resolved to write prison memoirs. But I became ill in prison. The tuberculosis, which can normally be cured in six months, lasted 10.

The lights were on day and night in my cell, but books, pens and paper were forbidden. The woman in the neighbouring cell bribed the guards and was able to smuggle books into the prison.

Many people demonstrate on a street surrounded by stately buildings with towers.

People protest against the government in Yangon in 1988


She sent me a few volumes in a plastic bag that she hung out of the window on a string, which I read at night and put back in the bag in the morning.

I found the brutal and vulgar language used by guards and criminals in prison particularly distressing.

Thanks to the support of PEN International and Amnesty International, I was finally released after five years, six months and six days. I stayed in Myanmar until 2021, but travelled abroad a lot, especially when it was suggested I apply for the presidency of PEN Myanmar.

“I would like to work as a surgeon or continue writing, ideally both”

Then the regime became more and more brutal, killing people for nothing. I decided to leave the country for a while.

As I had a valid Schengen visa, I first spent three months in Prague and then went to Yale University in the USA on a scholarship. I have now visited 40 countries. I am invited by literary festivals or political organisations and either read from my prison memoirs “Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps through Insein” or I speak about human rights in Myanmar.

I have been in Germany for a few months now and hope to return to my country soon. I would like to work as a surgeon or continue writing, ideally both.

Unfortunately, we didn't manage to overthrow the military regime twenty years ago. At the moment, however, things are not looking good for the military junta. Perhaps the younger generation will now succeed.

Interview by Stephanie von Hayek