Htoo was born in 1964 in a mining community in the Kayah (Kachin) State of northern Burma. A gifted athlete, he achieved local recognition as a player on the State’s volleyball team, while also studying towards a bachelor’s degree at Mandalay University via a distance learning program.
Htoo’s good relationship with the local military and recognition as a star athlete provided him with relatively unrestricted movement under the tightly controlled military government, and positioned him to lead an underground local opposition movement. In 1988, he organized a local protest as part of a nationwide series of demonstrations for the restoration of a democratic government, known as the ‘8888 Movement’. He was later placed under a six-month house arrest. As an additional consequence of his involvement, Htoo was denied a formal university degree by the military regime despite having completed five years of study.
Months after his release, Htoo crossed into Thailand to avoid persecution and to aid in the underground resistance movement. In Thailand, he was soon arrested and imprisoned for several months for illegal entry—an opportunity which Htoo used to learn and become fluent in Thai. After his forced return to Burma on release, he regrouped with other student activists involved in the underground resistance and was promoted to a key leadership position in the national movement. Facing the increasing threat of persecution, in 1994, he applied and received refugee status from the UNHCR and relocated to Thailand, where his Thai and Burmese language skills earned him a position as a translator at the UNHCR’s processing center in Bangkok.
In 1996, following the release of the leader of his underground movement in Thailand, Htoo Chit left the UNHCR to return to the resistance movement in the jungles of Kanchanaburi. He served as one of seven members of an executive committee, in the role of community relations. However, after witnessing acts of violence between the Burmese resistance and the Thai community, he became disillusioned and left the movement permanently. He felt that the best path for the Burmese in Thailand would be to learn to treat each other with dignity and respect. He formed Grassroots Human Rights Education and development (GHRE) in 2000 to educate Burmese migrants living in Thailand about democratic values, human rights, and how to live in peace with their Thai neighbors.
In 2004, he brought it to Thailand’s southern Phang Nga province to assist Burmese survivors after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. GHRE provided food, tools, intervened against children trafficking, obtained the legal status for many migrants, and sued employers who did not pay the workers in the re-construction work.
Htoo received international recognition when he organized victims of forced labor in a lawsuit against gas pipeline developers Unocal and Total. He was granted refugee status in France, which enabled him to stay in the country to serve as a spokesperson for the plaintiffs during the duration of the trial and helped them earn subsequent compensation. In France, he made contacts with a number of organizations and individuals interested in human rights—contacts who support his organization to this day.