“Whenever I feel stressed, I write poems.” 

(YANGON, October 26, 2020)—Myanmar has a long history of locking up, targeting, and attacking those who speak out or stand up for human rights. In a country where exercising the right to expression can land you in jail, human rights defenders face extreme risks and often struggle to cope with mental challenges. 

“I believe in poets,” said Maung Saungkha, a 27-year-old poet and human rights defender working to promote the right to free expression in Myanmar. “They have a window of empathy, a kind of open door.”

Today, Maung Saungkha works primarily through an organization he co-founded—Athan, which means “voice” in Burmese.

Born in a small town near Bagan, one of Myanmar’s ancient kingdoms, Maung Saungkha’s journey as a human rights defender began when he moved to Yangon. “I moved from my hometown to Yangon, and I started reading about Myanmar’s politics,” he told Fortify Rights. “I saw the difference between what I learned in the books and the reality on the ground. So, I tried to read and do as much as I could.” 

In 2012, Maung Saungkha joined the National League for Democracy (NLD) as a youth member and was elected a youth leader in 2014; however, he left the party after being disillusioned by the ruling NLD government. 

In 2016, Maung Saungkha faced more than six months in prison after expressing his disappointment and criticizing the government through a poem. 

Rather than dissuade him from human rights work, the experience cemented his commitment to defend the right to free expression.  

“At first, I worked on a range of human rights issues, but after I got out of the prison in 2016, I focused on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly,” he said.

Poetry remains central to Maung Saungkha’s life, which he has used to bring communities together.

“I work with like-minded poets to bring them together and recite their poems. Some might disagree with me when I try to include Rohingya poets . . . But I believe in people. One day, they will understand and speak up for people from minority groups.”

Maung Saungkha also described finding stress-relief by writing poems: “Whenever I feel stressed, I write poems. Some are drafted, and some are published. Apart from political issues, I write about love and the environment. It depends on what causes my stress.”

Speaking about the long-term challenges of coping with mental health issues in Myanmar, Maung Saungkha said: “People here contain their feelings, not letting others know about their emotions. Sometimes, I share [my feelings] with my trusted friends.”

“Like human rights progress, [coping with mental health issues] takes time.”

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