Undaunted: An Interview with Zoya Phan

Her father was a pro-democracy leader and her mother a guerrilla soldier. When she was 14 years old, the Burmese army attacked her remote village and Zoya Phan ran for her life. After weeks of hiding in the jungle, Zoya and her family, members of the Karen ethnic group, ended up in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. There, she won a scholarship from the Open Society Institute to study in the United Kingdom. Today, at age 29, she is one of Europe’s leading human rights advocates for Burma. Her book, Undaunted, describes her struggle for freedom and survival in Burma and has just been released in the United States.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote Undaunted to tell the world about my homeland and the struggle for freedom in Burma.

Few people know what is going on there. In Eastern Burma, more than 3,500 villages have been destroyed in the past 15 years and hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities continue to be used as slave labor.  Women and children are raped, men are tortured and executed. Right now there are more than 100,000 people hiding in the jungle, without food, proper shelter, or medicine.

There are remarkable people there who try to help and save lives without much support from the outside world. If they had more support, they could save more lives. I would like my book to inform but also to move people and governments to take action for human rights in Burma.

How many ethnic groups are there in Burma and why are they being persecuted?

There are eight major ethnic groups together with more than 130 ethnic minorities in Burma. Ethnic people have been living under constant attack by the ruling Burmese regimes for decades. There is a humanitarian crisis in Burma and systematic human right violations—including forced labor, rape, torture, extra-judicial killings, forced relocations, extortion, land confiscation and denial of aid—are widespread. The level of poverty and disease is as high as in the worst conflict zones in Africa, but without much attention from the international community.

The United Nations has accused the dictatorship in Burma of breaking the Geneva Conventions by deliberately targeting civilians. But there hasn’t been a UN investigation into these crimes. The U.S. government should support a UN commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship in Burma.

My dream for Burma is that everyone can live in peace, security and freedom regardless of ethnicity, race, religion and gender, and that everyone is treated equally.

In March, you visited the Thai-Burma border. Can you describe what is it like and tell me about the people you met?

I went to Papun in Karen State and met with people who were hiding in the jungle after having survived a mortar bomb attack by the Burmese army. The people cannot return to their land because the Burmese army is shooting people on sight. The army destroyed their houses, food, and crops.

I met a child soldier who had defected from the Burmese army. He was ordered to attack civilians and destroy their villages. He could end up in prison for forty years for deserting. And I will never forget a young woman I met who was five months pregnant and forced to carry heavy loads by the dictatorship’s troops. She was gang-raped, like many other women who are subjected to rape as a weapon of war by the regime.

How did you become a voice for freedom in the struggle for human rights in Burma?

The dictatorship holds on to power by denying education to its people, especially ethnic minorities like me. I grew up in Karen state and was forced to flee my homeland when the Burmese army attacked my village. While in a refugee camp, I received a scholarship from the Open Society Institute and a few other organizations to pursue higher education. Many other young people from Burma have no access to education.

In 2005, I started working with Burma Campaign UK to promote human rights, democracy, and development in Burma. I met twice with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as with the leader of the Conservative Party and now Prime Minister David Cameron, celebrities, and governments across Europe to ask them to take stronger action against the dictatorship.

What was life like in the refugee camp?

It was more like a prison camp. We were not allowed to go out. It wasn’t completely safe and we were completely dependent on aid from NGOs. We got basic food, education, and medical supplies. People in the camp live with hope that the situation in Burma will get better so that they can return home. As a young person there, I really didn’t know what lay ahead.

Do you know if people inside Burma are reading your book? What is their response?

People in Burma know about my book through the Burmese exiled media, which broadcasts the information all over the country. It could be dangerous for people to physically have my book inside. The dictatorship won’t allow such a political book that tells the truth about what’s going on in Burma.

People can read my book freely if they are in areas controlled by ethnic groups.  Many have sent encouraging messages and said the book gave them hope as well as information about advocacy activities.



Zoya.....I'm really proud of you.

Hi Zoya
You have shown great courage.
I pray Burma will become an open democratic country in the near future.
The outside world needs to demand that the military rulers step down and return power to the people.
My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Ama I proud of you. I would like to read your book

This is the beginning of people power movement to remove dictator rulership in burma.

well, u still need to reach basic grass root level people from different areas of Burma and need to meet with every different ethnics' representatives from burma to get stronger and better understanding in this non-violence movement.

well, i will suggest u more, later.


Our whole KaRen Nation salute you and your sister.
You carry well the genes of your Freedom fighting Dad and your daunting mother.
They sat the path and you siblings have stuck to it.
There ought to be many more of you'll.
We will yet achieve our goal of shaking off the Dictators yoke.

I concur with Pahsun. I read your book late last year and was riveted by the courage and incredible survival skills of your family. Each individual member was so brave. Your mother's encouragement of education and your father's sacrifice to fight the brutality against the Karen people will never be forgotten by me.

I applaud the Open Society Foundation for supporting your university education and hope that they will support so many more Burmese people of diverse ethnicities.

We all look to Egypt, a truely amazing revolution to build hope in all our hearts for Burma and all the oppressed people of oppressive governments worldwide.

Though I live in the USA, I can relate to your plight and others because of the unruly dictator of a neurological disease. It is unpredictable, limiting but somehow we all find courage to keep fighting ... I wish all oppressed people the same.

I meant... your father's sacrifice to fight the brutality of the current Burmese oppressive government. Your father was definitely on the side of the Karen people!

may God bless you

Hey Nant Zoya

You are one of our hero like your father Mahn Shar....


Hey Nant Zoya

You are one of our hero like your father Mahn Shar....


I am so proud of you. I used to face the same situation you did. I read you book this week after that i felt like i went back to the jungle then became refugee again. I hope my steps won't go backward.

Hi, Zoya I am Iftikhar Ali from Pakistan. Zoya can you help me in finding out of my grandfather (late) family tree which is most essential for the SAYED family. My grandfather's name was Sayed Najam Saleem Shah. During the British attack my grandmother Zohra Bibi (late) along with her son Ali Ahmad (my father) migrated to Lahore.

I just read Undaunted and saw your interview . You are quite amazing and I know your parents must be so proud of the work you carry on in their name and the name of your people.

What a amazing your woman you are. Your parents would be so proud of you. You will change your country.

You are so brave to share your story. Your beautifully written book has helped me begin to understand and become aware of what is happening in Burma. Thank you.

Thank you for writing this book, Zoya, you are a great inspiration to so many people. I have learned so much about Burma and I am thankful for that.

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