How Myanmar’s top beauty queen went from pageants to exile

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When you glance at Han Lay’s Instagram feed it might be hard to believe that she faces a death sentence in her home country of Myanmar.

Her feed captures her life as a beauty queen – full of studio shoots and elaborate dinners.

But the 23-year-old hasn’t been home or seen her family since last February after her beauty pageant speech about the military coup swept across social media.

Now living in Canada, where she says she will be granted permanent residency, she spoke to Sky News about her life in exile and the price she has paid for freedom.

After making her speech, Han Lay said she faced threats from the military.

“They tried to threaten me, the people from the military said ‘girl if you come back to Myanmar you’ll definitely be in jail’… they threatened me on social media and went to my family’s home,” she said.

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Han Lay has been living in exile since her beauty pageant speech made global headlines last year.

She said she was sentenced by Myanmar’s military to either 20 years in prison, life in prison or even execution, for going against the country and the government.

“Firstly I was really scared because I was only 21 years old at that time and I was really scared that I was facing that type of situation. I was just a young girl.”

But now living in Canada, she worries for her family back home in Myanmar.

What’s happened in Myanmar – the background:

  • Myanmar has been in chaos since the military seized power on 1 February last year. The army justifies the coup by alleging fraud in the 2020 election which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won
  • Protesters were met with brutal force from the police including water cannons and live ammunition
  • Over 15,000 people have been arrested and over 2,000 were killed by the junta, according to monitoring group, The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB)
  • The military’s crackdown had multiple targets, from pro-democracy and youth groups, to activists, politicians and even celebrities and social media influencers
  • Ms Suu Kyi has been sentenced for a total of 23 years in prisons in closed court trials
  • Four people involved in protests were executed in July this year

Han Lay grew up in the Burmese city of Mawlamyine, around 300km southeast of Yangon.

Having a voice was important to her as she became more involved in the beauty pageant industry, which led to her being crowned Miss Grand Myanmar 2020.

“I was always interested in modelling since I was young in my country. I think beauty queens have more responsibility and have more of a voice than a model. They have the duty of the country and so I was interested in that,” she said.

Last February, a week before Ms Lay was due to appear in Thailand at the Miss Grand International pageant, the Myanmar military seized power from the government.

In the days before her flight, Han Lay joined those peacefully protesting against the coup.

People protest in Mandalay, 22 February 2021
Image:
People protest in Mandalay, 22 February 2021

She said she didn’t tell her parents that she would speak about the situation in Myanmar in her speech as she knew they would be worried.

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“When I arrived in Thailand the electricity in my country was cut off, the power cut off. So I thought I had to share about what was going on in my country…I was really nervous but I was so excited and decided okay I must be brave for my country and for my people,” she said.

In her pageant speech, Han Lay appeared teary and begged the world to help Myanmar.

“There are so many people dying,” she said, as the judges and audience cried.

Han Lay, Myanmar's beauty queen *pls don't use yet* for Olive's piece
Image:
Han Lay protesting with friends

At that moment she realised she could not return to Myanmar, and the consequences didn’t stop there.

Han Lay said the military turned up at her family home and told her mum that she must bring her daughter home to face her prison sentence.

Knowing she couldn’t return home, Han Lay began to make arrangements to stay in Thailand, but she was unprepared.

“The only thing in my luggage was big designer ball gowns,” she said. For the next year and a half, she stayed in Thailand working for the pageant.

But in September, Han Lay was refused entry back into Thailand after leaving the country for a short three-day trip to Vietnam, which she says she was advised to do in order to renew her visa.

Demonstrators hold placards with pictures of Suu Kyi as they protest against the military coup in Yangon
Image:
Demonstrators hold placards with pictures of Suu Kyi as they protest against the military coup in Yangon

Han Lay was refused entry back into Thailand after leaving the country for a short three-day trip to Vietnam, which she says she was advised to do in order to renew her visa.

Thai authorities said her visa was invalid and she told Sky News she was the subject of an Interpol notice.

She spent one night in a detention room at the airport, fearing that she might be sent back to Myanmar. After hours in limbo, she managed to get on a flight to Canada.

Despite her family remaining worried about her safety, Ms Lay said she feels safe now and is scared for those who are still living in Myanmar under the military’s rule.

She said: “They keep worrying all the time, but now it is time for me to worry because they are in Myanmar… the military is so brutal. I really worry about my family.

“In Myanmar now we have no freedom.”

The AAPB says over 12,663 people are either still in detention or have been sentenced by the junta, while Amnesty International, says the military in Myanmar targets “anyone who speaks out against injustice in the country”.

Han Lay and her mother
Image:
Han Lay and her mother

Han Lay believes the military has targeted influencers like herself, who have large social media followings.

“Influencers have really great power. They have so many fans and they can share what is really happening in Myanmar. So the military has been trying to focus on influencers and to stop sharing information to the international community.”

She added that while some have fled the country like her, others who remain in Myanmar are too afraid to speak out about the regime because their families have been threatened by the military.

The current situation still scares Han Lay.

“In Myanmar now it is a really, really terrible situation. It’s a crazy situation. In Myanmar now we have no freedom and we can’t do anything,” she said.

While Han Lay wants to attend university in Canada, she hopes that one day she can return home.

But for now, living in exile, she misses her family and looks forward to the day when she can eat her mum’s homemade Burmese rice and curry again.

Myanmar’s military did not respond to a Sky News request to comment on Han Lay’s claims.

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