Htoot May is a member of the Upper House of Parliament for the Arakan National Party. She is secretary of the Joint Committee for the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly and also of the International Relations Committee.

I was born in Kyauk Tway village in the Ramree township of Arakan State. Ramree is an island in the Bay of Bengal with little direct contact with the mainland. My parents are farmers and I am the youngest of five children. Three of my siblings are boys but my parents did not discriminate against my sister and me for being girls. I was always treated equally by my parents and brothers.

I became interested in learning at a very young age, and really liked going to school. The school shut down for a while after 1988 because of the unrest and I was sad that I was not able to go.

Our village only had a primary school so after grade five I started at a middle school in another village. There was no transport except ox-driven carts, so I spent two hours a day walking through the fields to and from school. It was all right most of the time but in the rainy season we got wet and shivered once we arrived.

There was no television signal in our village, only a hall where we would gather to watch recorded programmes and films.

I want to be a person who can help Arakan state first, can help the development of Myanmar second, and ultimately be a woman who can help the world.

There were very few radios. I only got to watch real TV when I arrived in Yangon.

My parents couldn’t afford to send my brothers and me to Sittwe, the state capital, so we left for Yangon where we had relatives who could put us up. My brothers left first and I moved to Yangon in 1996.

I started at the University of Distance Education. I wanted to become a nurse but I found you had to pay a large bribe to get into nursing school and I was not able or willing to pay. I started learning English with an expatriate teacher at a Buddhist monastery in Sanchaung.

I graduated in 2002 and went on to get a diploma in software engineering. It was only then that I started to make friends outside my immediate social circle. Later, my cousins introduced me to a private learning centre. Some of the teachers from that school organized conversation clubs at the British Council. Together with them I started going to the British Council at the weekend to practice my English, and also joined the library.

I was starting to get involved in politics. I was not a party member but the Arakan League for Democracy recommended I attend some courses at the British Council. I found out more about how democratic systems work and also about the political system in the UK.

I gained confidence from these courses and had a taste of ‘freedom of education’, which was totally different from how we were taught in school. I was allowed to think and learn freely through a student- centred approach. I discovered that I needed to read more than what was in the syllabus, do research and respect intellectual property rights.

From my classes at the British Council I realised the true meaning of the Myanmar saying ‘Education is a pot of gold that cannot be stolen from you’. The British Council helped me become a global citizen. Later on, I became a youth member of the Arakan League for Democracy, and also started teaching.

In 2011 I joined the Arakkha Foundation, an education and leadership training initiative for Arakan women from Arakan, Paletwa, Yangon and Ayeyarwaddy Division. I went to Singapore as a representative of the foundation and saw the level of development there. I became strongly motivated to boost development in Myanmar.

I want first to be a person who can help Arakan state and its people, secondly someone who can help the development of Myanmar as a country and ultimately a woman who can help the world.

Now that I’m a member of parliament, the training I received from the British Council has proved really useful. It gave me an understanding of the fundamentals of parliamentary systems, democratic practices and values so now I know what is and is not consistent with democratic values.

I am happy with how my life has progressed. I was not aware that every human being should have a dream until I heard Martin Luther King’s speech during one of my classes. I was just coasting along nicely without a clear objective before that. If one has a dream, and the desire to follow it through and remain on the right track to achieve to it, I believe anything is possible.