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.

Zoya, the love for your family, people and country is immeasurable. I am proud that you have taken so many risks for what you believe in, and that you have no regrets! Don't give up hope.

Thank you for sharing your story. Your bravery in speaking out is an inspiration to all. There is power in being vocal and the more people that are aware the more we can act and make change happen.

Thank you for your bravery, Zoya. I just read your book and I am going to stay involved with your country's progress. I have the privilege of teaching Chin refugees and your book has helped me understand a little more of their story.

I believe that you have been called to help your people and it is not luck. You have a gift of strength. I hope you will one day return to the beautiful life you described. It sounds perfect. I will tell more people and I will encourage our president to press in on international law.

Zoya, your story has really touched my heart. I work with Chin refugees, I teach them everyday at our school. Your story has helped me to see inside their lives as well. I hope the best for you and your family. I have a passion for your culture and hope to see everyone be successful and live in peace.

Zoya, thank you for writing this book and sharing your story with us. Your bravery is an inspiration to us all. I have the honor and privilege to work with Chin refugee children. You story has helped me learn a little more about them. You helped me to become aware of what is happening to your country. I pray that peace will prevail.

Zoya, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your story of your personal struggles and successes with us. It has touched me deeply and has opened my eyes about things happening outside the U.S. I think we all stay in our little bubbles of life and when a story like yours comes out, it is eye opening and we realize our struggles are not so bad. Thank you and bless you and your family.

Thank you for sharing your story, Zoya. My eyes were opened about the situation in Burma when I read your book, and the people of Burma have been on my mind ever since. In writing your book and campaigning throughout the western world, I am confident that you will recruit many people, both ordinary and governmental, to put pressure on the regime in Burma and someday I hope that you will see the Burma that you dream about.

I am glad to see that the young Burmese medical graduates community members are being honored and celebrated. It is important that the older generations give back and help the younger ones to succeed.

After reading your book Undaunted, it has opened my eyes to the Karen people's situation. Zoya is such a strong woman and is a true testament to her parents and their beliefs and faith. Her concern if for her people and she is the voice of her people. Not many individuals are as strong as she is and she is to be applauded and respected.

Thank you for sharing your story and opening the eyes of so many people who do not understand the plight of your people. You are a brave and compassionate person and I know you will continue your fight to help your people. I will pray for democracy in your country.

Thank you for sharing your story. I work on an elementary school campus in Texas with many Chin refugees. Your story has given me insight into the struggles of the people of Burma and their fight for freedom. My goal is to use the knowledge gained from your book to better understand our Chin students and help them build successful lives. Thank you again for your courage.

Zoya--I have just completed reading your book and I do not have the words to say how very humbled I am by you and your work. What you and your family have gone through to help the plight of the Karen in Burma is just incredible to me. As a native citizen of the United States, it makes me further understand how incredibly lucky I am to have lived my life as I have, and to try to imagine the life you have lived while now fighting for the rights of your people. As an educator, I have been presented with the opportunity to work with a very large population of Chin refugees from Burma, who have also been through situations as yours. I help educate their children and see how much the cherish the opportunity their children now have in our country (USA), as well as also helping to educate the adults in order for them to become US citizens (who wish to return to Burma to see their families). This experience has taught me so much, and now that I have read the details of your life, helps me to better understand where they have come from as well. So, thank you very much for sharing with the world, and I applaud you and the organizations you work with for your efforts. I only hope that in some small way, what I do with the refugees I work with will also help in the plight for the people of Burma.

Zoya, thank you so much for sharing your story with the world.

Your story has helped me to learn about Burma and understand the struggles in your country.

I'm so proud for you to have been able to get your education which was so important to you and your family.

Your experiences have taught me so much.

Again, thank you for sharing your story.

You are in my prayers.

I just finished reading "Undaunted" and learned so much about your
country, your culture and most importantly your struggle for freedom and
peace. I was touched by the love between you and your parents, and
specifically your father. I wonder how much of your success is rooted in
this love. I also imagine that he was also a gifted writer. Thank you
for your example of fighting for what you believe in, and I too, hope you
are able to go home someday to a peaceful Burma.

Thank you for this heart wrenching and empowering book. I teach in a school district where I have several Chin students. They often struggle in school because of cultural and language barriers. Your book and speech have helped me connect with the students so I can understand what they might have gone through. I know the students want to learn and want to succeed, your book has provided information to help me get through to them.

You are an inspiration. I loved your book and will share your story of strength and courage with m family.


Your commitment to your country and its people definitely shows that you are Undaunted. You are so courageous and brave to speak out even in the face of grave danger. Thank you for sharing your story with us. It has opened our eyes to the horrible things that are happening in your precious Burma. I pray that you have continued strength to continue on your journey.

I applaud your efforts to make your country a better place. It seems as if it is becoming harder and harder to fight for what is right in our world. People are scared to even try. Your efforts are tireless and are helping so many deserving people. Journey on.

Zoya, you are an incredibly brave young lady. Your voice and actions are going to raise awareness and hopefully help the innocent people of Burma. I want to join you in spreading the message.
Governments that block the aspirations of their people, that steal or are corrupt, that oppress and torture or that deny freedom of expression and human rights should bear in mind that they will find it increasingly hard to escape the judgement of their own people, or where warranted, the reach of international law.
-William Hague

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