Beauty queen who escaped Myanmar's military and now lives in P.E.I. shares her story on Canadian tour

Thaw Nandar Aung, 23, who also goes by the name Han Lay, has been living in Charlottetown since arriving in Canada in September after leaving Burma, where she feared possible arrest. She was in London, Ont., this week to meet with members of the Burmese community, and will speak in other Canadian cities. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News - image credit)
Thaw Nandar Aung, 23, who also goes by the name Han Lay, has been living in Charlottetown since arriving in Canada in September after leaving Burma, where she feared possible arrest. She was in London, Ont., this week to meet with members of the Burmese community, and will speak in other Canadian cities. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News - image credit)

The Burmese model and beauty queen who spoke out against the military junta in Myanmar while on an international stage in Thailand last year is living in Charlottetown and sharing her story to raise awareness about what's going on in her home country.

Thaw Nandar Aung, 23, who also goes by the name Han Lay, has been in Prince Edward Island since September. This week, she was in London, Ont., to meet with members of the Burmese community, and will be in Toronto on Saturday, Vancouver on Nov. 26, and Edmonton on Dec. 3 as part of a Canadian tour.

"Since the military coup happened in Myanmar, the people are facing so many difficulties day by day," said Thaw Nandar Aung in an interview with London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen on Thursday morning.

In September, it was reported Thaw Nandar Aung was en route to Canada, which she said had granted her asylum, as she had feared being arrested by Burma's military government.

CBC reached out to the Canadian government on Thursday, but a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said they couldn't comment "due to privacy laws" without consent from the person involved.

"Refugees and newcomers are a driving force behind our society and economy, and our country has a longstanding and proud tradition of helping the world's most vulnerable," the spokesperson said in an email. "In 2021, Canada resettled more refugees than anywhere else in the world. In fact, over one third of resettled refugees last year now call Canada home."

Although currently living in P.E.I., Thaw Nandar Aung told London Morning she hopes to move to the southwestern Ontario city.

WATCH | Thaw Nandar Aung's pageant speech:

Thaw Nandar Aung denounced her country's military rulers last year from the stage of the Miss Grand International beauty pageant in Bangkok. She accused the military of selfishness and abusing power for using lethal force to crush peaceful protests, and she appealed for international help for her country.

Myanmar's military, which seized power in February 2021 from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, has cracked down heavily on widespread opposition to its rule. Critics, including actors and other celebrities, have been arrested on charges that carry penalties ranging from three years of imprisonment to death.

Referring to media reports in late April, Thaw Nandar Aung said the military-controlled government "burned more than 500 houses. People are facing so many difficulties, especially the innocent people. For example, if they burn the house, the people have no home to live, no food to eat, and some of the people die because of the fire and because of the airstrikes. So many people are facing so many difficulties day by day."

Speech shocked friends and family

On her speech at the Bangkok pageant, she said, "Everyone was surprised because I didn't tell to anyone that I [was going to] make that speech.

"The response from the people, they support me a lot and so many media from different countries, they reach out to me to do interviews."

Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News
Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News

After Thaw Nandar Aung made her speech in April 2021, she continued living in Thailand.

In September 2021, she was charged in absentia with sedition for speaking out against the military takeover at the pageant and online. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

"I'm very impressed with Han's stance," said Tin Maung Htoo, an independent investor in London, Ont., who moved to Canada from Myanmar 20 years ago and spent three years in a Thai jail for speaking out against the military regime decades earlier.

Tin Maung Htoo is also head of the Burmese Canadian Action Network, which formed after last year's military coup.

"It's very rare people like her, in that kind of industry, speaking out against this kind of very tough military regime, knowing that there would be repercussions and reprisals from the military, but she did it."

Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News
Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News

Tin Maung Htoo is hopeful Thaw Nandar Aung will be able to return to Myanmar one day. She's an only child whose father passed away when she was young and she misses her mother.

"I really worry about my mom's situation there because I feel like she's not safe," she said.

"I really miss my mom and my family, but I never regret about this because I did the right way and I did for my people, not only for me."