Women’s revolution: what the coup means for gender equality in Myanmar
A few weeks ago, a strange spectacle began to appear in the streets of Myanmar (Burma). Women hung their traditional htamein – pieces of fabric they wear as skirts – ropes tied to windows or electric poles, hanging them above the streets as decoration for a parade. Some tie them to sticks and carry them like flags. These women don’t just do the laundry; they are protesting against the coup d’état organized by the Burmese army on February 1.
“Men think they have special powers just because they are men,” says Khin Ohmar, a women’s rights activist in Myanmar. Equal times. “And they believe that walking under women’s clothing will make them lose their special powers.” the htamein thus serve as shields to protect the protest zones and prevent the entry of the military.
From the very beginning, women have been at the forefront of protests against the coup that ousted Myanmar’s civilian government led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi.
As Wah Khu Shee, director of the Karen Peace Support Network and member of the Karen Women’s Organization, explains, both of whom are linked to the Karen ethnic group: “The first people to take to the streets, those who led the movement, were young people. women. in Myanmar. They are the ones who started to organize it. More and more people joined in and now it has become a national movement.
According to data provided to Radio Free Asia According to the local organization Gender Equality Network, women represent around 60% of the demonstrators who took to the streets and between 70 and 80% of the movement’s leaders. Many are nurses, teachers and textile factory workers, who have already found themselves in a vulnerable situation due to Covid-19.
Many women who have taken to the streets have given their lives to protect Myanmar’s fragile democracy, says Wah Khu Shee. The first was 20 years old Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, who became a symbol of the movement after his death on February 19. Then came Ma Kyal Sin, a 19-year-old girl who was killed in early March during a protest in Mandalay, in the north of the country, which has become another symbol, with the phrase written on her t-shirt that day: “Everything is going to be okay.”
The military announced its takeover in early February after months of refusing to accept the November 2020 election results, in which Suu Kyi’s party was victorious. Since then, at least 750 people have been killed by security forces and more than 3,696 have been arrested, charged or sentenced, according to the Association of assistance to political prisoners.
Signs of a failed democracy
The coup d’état of last February is nothing new to the people of Myanmar. The Burmese military first seized power in 1962 and would tightly control the country for nearly five decades. In 1990, after changing the country’s official name to Myanmar in an attempt to gain greater international recognition, the military government allowed elections to be held. But when Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party emerged victorious, the junta overturned the election results and stepped up the crackdown.
When the military government again announced the path to “disciplined democracy” in 2003, the process was seen as yet another attempt to improve public relations. A new constitution, which reserved significant power for the military, was adopted in 2008 and in 2010 the first elections were held. The NLD refused to participate in these elections to protest against an electoral framework that prevented Suu Kyi from running. However, new elections in 2015 led to a transfer of power to a civilian government controlled by Suu Kyi, a decisive step for many towards democratic transition.
But according to Gabrielle Bardall, a researcher at the Center for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa, and Elin Bjarnegård, associate professor of political science at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, the absence of women throughout this process has been glaring. The new constitution, for example, reserves 25% of seats in parliament and several ministerial posts for the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, which has only recently been opened to women.
“It was proof that this democratic reform did not go as far as expected. And even if women would not necessarily have prevented the coup, things could have turned out better, as there is evidence that including women in peace talks contributes to better peacebuilding ”, said Bardall.
Even Suu Kyi’s presence in key positions of power – although the constitution prohibited her from becoming president of the country because she was married to a foreigner and had children of another nationality – was not enough to change the political dynamics of the country. “The example of a woman [in power] is not enough. We need women who understand women’s issues and stand up for women’s rights, ”says Wah Khu Shee. Suu Kyi, whose current whereabouts are not yet known, has been criticized for not making gender equality one of her priorities.
According to Bjarnegård, there has also been little change within the political parties. “I haven’t seen too many big changes or signs that reform has been a high priority for the parties,” she said. As she explains, one of the main problems has been finding women who want to get into politics. “All the women we interviewed needed the full support of their families and husbands to enter politics professionally,” she continues, highlighting the country’s “patriarchal culture” as one of the main obstacles. In the November 2020 elections, women won only 15% of the seats.
Changing gender roles
Khin Ohmar still remembers how difficult it was to be a woman in her early years of activism. In 1988, the country rose up against the military junta after a student was killed by police. Ohmar, also a student at the time, refused to stay at home. “I had a very difficult situation with my family because they tried to stop me from taking to the streets,” she says. Ohmar became vice-president of one of the student unions that formed during those years, at a time when women were often relegated to administrative and financial positions. “Some doors opened for women to occupy certain leadership positions, but it was still very patriarchal,” she continues.
During his exile over the following decades, Khin Ohmar remained involved in the pro-democracy movement, but felt that many still refused to take the issue of gender equality seriously. “They thought we only wanted to talk about women’s issues. But we wanted to talk about politics, about the federal system, ”she explains. “This is why our country is blocked. The roots of this patriarchy run too deep.
But Ohmar has seen a shift in gender roles during the current protests. “In 1988, the leaders were men. This time it’s women. It’s exciting, ”she says. According to the 2019 report Feminism in Myanmar, the political reforms after 2010 “opened a space for the coordination of the efforts of women’s organizations inside and outside the country”, in an activism that “was committed not only to the satisfaction of basic needs communities, but also in the process of political reform ”. The report further argues that women have improved their capacity for social mobilization and networking during the years of democratic transition.
Bjarnegård also observed a change in dynamics. “The current protests have shown us that something is changing. We see young people, men and women. It’s another generation that is in some ways more liberal, that has had access to Facebook and that has been influenced by other countries, ”she says.
However, Wah Khu Shee is concerned that when the situation calms down, things will return to the way they were. “When there is conflict and men are afraid, women are welcome. But when peace is restored, it’s back to the usual gender discrimination, ”she said.
She cites the example of the peace process between the government and some of the main ethnic guerrillas (2011-2015), in which only four women were present in the delegations sent to the negotiations (less than 6% of the total number of representatives, after data from Bardall and Bjarnegård). However, she retains a small ray of hope: “I hope that this time we can see [the impact of] the improvements women have experienced in decision making [during the democratic period]. She hopes these changes will prevent women from being “relegated to the kitchen” again when peace returns. “There have been improvements but it’s still very difficult… you have to wait and see.”