Myanmar beauty queen Han Lay, who called on the international community to help her country regain democracy during last year’s Miss Grand International pageant in Thailand, has been detained by Thai authorities in Bangkok, she told RFA Burmese on Thursday.
Han Lay was taken into custody on Wednesday night by immigration officials at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport as she returned from a three-day trip to Vietnam, she said in a phone interview.
She said she believes the military regime reported her to Interpol as being wanted for illegal activities in Myanmar, as retribution for her anti-junta activism at home and in Thailand.
“As I returned from Vietnam to Thailand, the system set off a ‘red notice’ when my passport was processed, saying that my name is on the Interpol list, so Thai authorities denied my entry into Thailand,” she said, adding that her passport was confiscated by Vietnamese airline officials and is now listed as “lost.”
“The normal procedure is to return the detainee to the country they left. But I refused to go back to Vietnam [for fear they would deport me to Myanmar]. So they have kept me in the airport.”
Thai immigration authorities released a statement saying that Han Lay was “denied entry to Thailand because she lacked the required travel documents under Thai immigration law.” The statement said immigration officials are “negotiating with the airline authorities to deport her,” but made no mention of her being under arrest.
Han Lay said the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) is working with the Thai government on her case.
“I hope they will help me to secure the best option, whether it is re-entry to Thailand or entry to a third country,” she said.
Han Lay was a participant in the 2020 Miss Grand International pageant, held in Bangkok just a month after Myanmar’s military seized control of the country in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup. After using the stage to appeal to the international community for the release of Myanmar’s ousted leaders, Han Lay remained in Thailand on a tourist visa, knowing she would likely face persecution back home, where she has since been charged in absentia for “high treason.”
After more than 18 months in Thailand, she had overstayed her visa and was unable to extend it any longer, so she traveled to Vietnam with the hope that she could reapply upon her return.
“It was easier to depart Thailand and apply for a new visa to return,” she said.
“Before my departure, I tried to confirm whether I would have any trouble upon my return to Thailand. [The Thai authorities] told me it would be fine, so I left. But I guess the authorities in Myanmar spoke with their counterparts in Vietnam before I returned to Thailand.”
Han Lay told RFA that Thailand cannot deport her to Myanmar while her case is being reviewed by the UNHCR, but she is unsure of what will happen to her after that. Attempts by RFA to reach Thai immigration authorities for comment on Han Lay’s status went unanswered on Thursday.
She noted that she could be sentenced to death by the junta if she were to return to Myanmar.
“I think an entire military division would be waiting for me upon my arrival at the airport [if I was deported home],” she said, noting that the charges she faces are even more severe than those under the country’s anti-terrorism law that are more commonly used to prosecute opponents of military rule.
“They wanted me to show support for the coup, but I said otherwise, so they accused me of offending the state. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing.”
‘I acted of my own free will’
But despite the uncertainty of her situation and the likelihood she will be unable to return to Myanmar while the junta controls the country, the beauty queen said she stands by her decision to condemn the military rule on the world stage.
“I believe what I did was the right thing to do … nobody convinced me to do it — I acted of my own free will.
“I got into this trouble not because of something I did wrong, but because I stood up for justice. I am hopeful that concerned organizations around the world will offer to help me out of this situation.”
Han Lay said that life for her in Thailand had been “a struggle” and expressed her appreciation to the Miss Grand Pageant organization for supporting her over the last 18 months.
“I am ready to start a new life if I get a chance to resettle in another country,” she said.
Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.