Speeches by contestants in beauty contests are rarely the headline.
But her speech shook her head when Miss Grand Myanmar’s Han Ray spoke last week in opposition to the alleged atrocities committed by her military.
“Today, in my country Myanmar … many people are dead,” she said at the Miss Grand International 2020 event in Thailand. “Help Myanmar. I need your urgent international assistance right now.”
A little over a month ago, 22-year-old Han Lei was protesting the military on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
Myanmar’s anxiety began two months ago when the military seized control of the country and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party canceled a democratic election that won a landslide.
When tens of thousands of people were taken to the streets across the country to protest the coup, the army used water cannons to dissolve them. A week later, the reaction escalated to a rubber bullet and then to a live bullet.
The worst day of the conflict was last Saturday, killing more than 100 people. Local surveillance groups have killed more than 500 people. According to Save the Children, 43 of the killed were children.
Han Ray, a psychology student at the University of Yangon, decided to use the pageant as a platform for talking about her hometown on the international stage.
“In Myanmar, journalists are detained … so I decided to speak up,” she told the BBC in a telephone interview from Bangkok.
She is now worried that her two-minute speech could have put her on military radar. She said she decided to stay in Thailand for at least the next three months.
Han Ray said he knew that he could be at risk and needed to stay there for a while before leaving for Thailand.
“I’ve talked a lot about Myanmar’s military and the situation, so I’m very worried about my family and my safety. Who knows that there is a limit to talking about what’s happening in Myanmar? I know, “she said.
“My friend told me not to go back to Myanmar.”
Her fears are not groundless. Security forces last week had 18 celebrities, social media “influencers,” and two under the law against materials “intended to revolt or disregard their obligations to military members.” State media reported that they had issued arrest warrants to journalists. All of them spoke against the coup.
Han Ray said he had not been contacted by the military or other officials after the speech, but said he had received threatening comments on his social media accounts.
“On social media they threatened me and when I returned to Myanmar … said the prison was waiting for me,” she said. She doesn’t know who is behind the threatening remarks. She said most of the comments on social media were supportive.
Many of Han Ray’s fellow students she protested in the first few weeks after the coup was imprisoned, she said. At least 2,500 people were arrested for military crackdowns, according to a group of activists from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) in Burma.
And one of her friends was killed, Han Ray said.
“He wasn’t even protesting. He went to a restaurant for coffee one night and someone shot him,” she said.
She said Hanley’s family was safe, but communication with them is sporadic in Myanmar due to regular internet cuts. She asked the BBC not to publish the name of her hometown to protect them.
Han Ray’s public political statements, including direct criticism of the Myanmar military and “winning the revolution” in interviews with fans on Pageant’s official channel, often prefer to remain non-political. It is not common among pageant contestants.
Prior to the tournament, Miss Grand Cambodia’s Lyv Chili called on fans not to participate in politics.
However, she said Han Ray sees the statement as her “duty.” She called Suu Kyi “the best inspiration.” The exiled Democratic leader was charged last week for violating Myanmar’s State Secrecy Law. This offense involves up to 14 years in prison.
Han Ray had previously planned training to become a flight attendant after graduation, but she said she now doesn’t know which path to take. Some tried to persuade her to go into politics, she said, but she doesn’t think it’s for her.
Meanwhile, she will continue to speak in her own voice.
“These are crimes against humanity, and that’s why we want the United Nations to take urgent action,” she said. “We want to regain our leaders and regain true democracy.”