Ma Thida was born in 1966 in Yangon, Myanmar, where she also completed her medical studies. As a doctor and as an editor, she was involved in various democratization initiatives in her home country. She edited brochures, evaluated tapes and videos, and became involved in providing medical care to family members of political prisoners.
She began writing short stories in the mid-1980s. However, due to increasing censorship by the military regime of the time, it became increasingly difficult for her to publish her literary texts in magazines. In 1993, Ma Thida was sentenced to twenty years in prison for supporting the pro-democracy movement, especially the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
PEN America accepted her as an honorary member for this reason. Anna J. Allott read her essay »Thumbnail sketch on Burmese literature world 1988 onward« at Northern Illinois University. The essay summarized Burmese literature from 1988 onward with an overview of different genres, examples from contemporary works, and background information on the authorities’ censorship measures. During her imprisonment, there were many expressions of solidarity for Ma Thida around the world. British magazines, »PEN American«, and »PEN International Magazine« all published her texts, which were also read in BBC/Radio 4’s »Writers in Prison« series.
After her release in 1999, Ma Thida spent much time abroad, participating in medical education programs, international literary projects and festivals, and panel discussions on freedom of expression, including as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. Her experiences in prison became the central theme of her autobiographical texts and her lectures at various U.S. universities. In 2011, she received the Norwegian Freedom of Speech Award in particular for her 2011 novel »The Roadmap«, which she published under the pseudonym Suragamika [Brave Traveler]. The book is based on a family story and describes two decades of Burma’s democracy movement. Her memoir about her life in Yangon, her incarceration in Insein Prison, and her time in the United States was published in English translation in 2016 under the title »Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps through Insein«.
Ma Thida is now considered one of her country’s leading intellectuals. She continues to advocate for democratic government and human rights in Myanmar, including the rights of the persecuted Rohingya minority. She founded PEN Myanmar and served as its president until 2016. In 2016, she was awarded the Disturbing the Peace Award by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation and elected as member of board of PEN International. Ma Thida was elected as chair of the Writer in Prison Committee of PEN International in 2021 and was a research scholar at Yale University’s Council on South East Asia Studies in 2021–22.
She is now living in Berlin as a writer-in-residency program hosted by Freundeskreis Schloss Wiepersdorf – Bettina und Achim von Arnim e. V.