I was first introduced to Prospect Burma in October 2016 when my parents invited me to a dinner that they had won in a charity auction a few months before. They had attended an event for the charity and, inspired by a recent trip to Burma and the charity’s work, were supporting them in their fundraising.
Prospect Burma was set up in 1989 following a period of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations which were violently quashed by the Burmese military regime, often with large numbers of people killed. Universities and schools were closed and martial law was imposed and young Burmese people fled in thousands.
Supporters from all over the world started to send provisions and Prospect Burma was born, initially raising funds for books and classes in refugee schools and awarding one annual scholarship for an exiled Burmese student to attend university. It’s scholarship programme was started in 1992 with support from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize funds, and the charity has since awarded over 1300 scholarships to students studying all over the world.
The dinner was to be cooked by Min Min, an asylum seeker from Burma, now studying Politics with International Relations at York University. My parents knew I was getting involved in Burmese pop ups with Cordelia and Lucy and thought I might like to come along and meet Min Min and Robert Gordon, Chairman of the Prospect Burma and previous British Ambassador to Burma, 1995 - 1999.
As plans progressed for my trip to Hampshire for the dinner, I was asked if I could go and help Min Min prep during the day. I think everyone involved in the dinner was worried that Min Min would be stuck with the ‘oldies’ all day and someone his own age might be a bit of welcome relief.
I was more than happy to get involved - cooking is one of life’s greatest pleasures and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn some authentic Burmese recipes.
Min Min turned out not only to be a total dude who had me creasing up all afternoon, but also one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. As we cooked (and when I say ‘we’, I really mean ‘he’ as he had everything completely under control, so my job was, er, stirring) he told me how he had learned to cook and how he ended up in the UK.
In 2000 he was studying at Bago university and set up a kind of student union promoting the arts, music, literature and political freedom with his friends. The government saw this as a revolutionary act and he was arrested, along with his friends, and imprisoned. Some of his friends were sentenced to death but Min Min was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
He explained how it was impossible to stay alive eating the food provided by the prison, and his family would smuggle food in for him. It was here that he learned to cook as a means of survival. He, as many other prisoners did, built makeshift stoves in their cells and burned balled-up plastic bags to cook the food. The burning plastic bags caused long-term nasal problems and Min Min now has what seems like a permanent cold.
He was released from prison three years early but 6 months later was detained twice again because of political activities that had nothing to do with him. As he explained, once you’ve been a political prisoner, they will often detain again you on a whim. When released, his mother begged him to leave the country as she couldn’t bear to see him go to prison again, or worse, receive a harsher sentence. She risked her life to smuggle him out of the country to Thailand where he then set up a school for refugee kids. He later travelled to Sweden for a 3 month internship and ended up in the UK after a completing a 6 month course in Defending Human Rights at the University of York.
Min Min told me how he entered a period of depression - in Thailand he had a purpose and the work he had done with the school had benefitted many children. He felt he needed to apply himself to something. It was during this time that he met Aung San Suu Kyi for the second time and told her of his plans to to go back to Burma. She had said he should use his time in the UK to develop a skill that would benefit the people of Burma, so he decided to study Politics and International relations and return to Burma one day to become a politician. He received a scholarship from Prospect Burma and is now studying the University of York.
I found Min Min’s incredible resilience and proactive attitude to life an absolute inspiration. To go through something like that and come out fighting is something many of us would find unachievable.
We have decided to donate £2 of every ticket* sale to Prospect Burma to support their work and enable people like Min Min to return to Burma with skills that will aid the development of the country.