When you take a look at Han Lay’s Instagram feed, it may be hard to believe that she faces a death sentence in her home country of Myanmar.
Her stream captures her life as a beauty queen — full of studio shoots and elaborate dinner parties.
But the 23-year-old has not returned home or seen her family since last February after her beauty pageant speech about the military coup swept through 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 paid for freedom.
After giving her speech, Han Lay said she was threatened by the military.
“They tried to threaten me, people from the army said ‘daughter, if you come back to Myanmar, you will definitely be in prison’…they threatened me on social media and went to my family’s house” , she said.
She said she was sentenced by the Myanmar military to 20 years in prison, life in prison or even execution, for opposing the country and the government.
“First of all, I was really scared because I was only 21 at the time and I was really scared to face this kind of situation. I was just a young girl.”
But now living in Canada, she worries about her family in Myanmar.
What happened in Myanmar – the background:
- Myanmar has been in chaos since the military took over on February 1 last year. Army justifies coup by alleging fraud in 2020 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party
- Protesters were met with brutal police force, including water cannons and live ammunition
- More than 15,000 people have been arrested and more than 2,000 killed by the junta, according to monitoring group The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB)
- The army crackdown targeted multiple targets, ranging from pro-democracy and youth groups to activists, politicians and even celebrities and social media influencers.
- Ms Suu Kyi was sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison in a closed trial
- Four people involved in protests were executed in July this year
Han Lay grew up in the Burmese town of Mawlamyine, about 300 km southeast of Yangon.
Having a voice was important to her as she became more involved in the pageant industry which led to her being crowned Miss Grand Myanmar 2020.
“I have always been interested in modeling since I was young in my country. I think beauty queens have more responsibilities and have more voice than a model. They have a duty to the country and so that interested me,” she said. .
Last February, a week before Ms Lay was to appear in Thailand for the Miss Grand International pageant, the Burmese military seized power in government.
In the days leading up to his flight, Han Lay joined those peacefully protesting the coup.
She said she did not tell her parents she would mention the situation in Myanmar in her speech because she knew they would be worried.
“When I arrived in Thailand, the electricity in my country was cut off, the power was cut off. So I thought I should share what was happening in my country… I was really nervous but I was so excited and I decided okay, I have to be brave for my country and for my people”, she said.
In her pageant speech, Han Lay appeared in tears and pleaded with the world to help Myanmar.
“There are so many people dying,” she said, as the judges and audience wept.
At that point, she realized she couldn’t go back to Myanmar, and the consequences didn’t end there.
Han Lay said the army showed up at her family’s home and told her mother she had to 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 were big designer ball gowns,” she said. For the next year and a half, she stayed in Thailand to work for the pageant.
But in September, Han Lay was refused entry to 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.
Han Lay was refused entry to 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 on an Interpol notice.
She spent a night in a detention room at the airport, fearing she would be sent back to Myanmar. After hours spent in limbo, she managed to catch a flight to Canada.
Although her family remains worried for her safety, Ms Lay said she felt safe now and feared for those still living in Myanmar under military rule.
She said: “They keep worrying all the time, but now it’s time for me to worry because they are in Myanmar…the army is so brutal. I really worry about my family.
“In Myanmar now, we don’t have freedom.”
The AAPB says more than 12,663 people remain in detention or have been sentenced by the junta, while Amnesty International says the military in Myanmar is targeting “anyone who speaks out against injustice in the country”.
Han Lay believes the military has targeted influencers like her, who have a large following on social media.
“Influencers have great power. They have so many fans and they can share what is really happening in Myanmar. So the military tried to focus on influencers and stop sharing information with the international community.”
She added that while some have fled the country like her, others who remain in Myanmar are too afraid to talk about the regime because their families have been threatened by the military.
The current situation still scares Han Lay.
“In Myanmar now, it’s a really, really terrible situation. It’s a crazy situation. In Myanmar now, we don’t have any freedom and we can’t do anything,” she said.
While Han Lay wishes to attend a university in Canada, she hopes to one day be able to return home.
But for now, living in exile, she misses her family and looks forward to the day when she can eat her mother’s homemade Burmese rice and curry again.
Myanmar’s military did not respond to a request from Sky News to comment on Han Lay’s claims.
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