On February 1st 2021, Myanmar’s military seized power. The ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightful democratic leader, from a government which upheld the rule of law, places the insurgents in wrongful control over Myanmar. Their insurgence evokes a scarring history of gender-based violence and patriarchal dominance and these values are ominously being reinstated to reverse the progress made over the past decade to ensure that women in Myanmar have more opportunities, power, and influence in society.
From independence onwards: a summary
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been ruled by a junta military since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948. They were far more powerful and their malevolent domination meant that the democratic system implemented after independence had little chance of steady survival; their uprising led to the coup d'état in 1962. The influence of associated patriarchy became larger and deeper. Beauty contests were banned after the 1962 coup because of the notion that women were the epitome of virtue yet some endured sexual violence. Rape was used as a weapon by the army to dishonour and degrade ethnic communities yet the wives of the political elites were given roles in the conflicts and were granted privilege and a hand in the growth of patriarchal power. In short, the military enjoyed sixty years of dominance in politics.
There is a popular saying, which stems from customary practices, that asks women to “regard her son as her master and her husband as her god”. For example, Myanmar’s Buddhist population believes in the concept of male power given to men at birth through the nobility of manhood. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi’s biological anatomy never phased her from the customary practices surrounding her and believed in peace: removing all the negative factors that destroy peace in the world including discrimination such as inequality.
Women’s organizations were formed by activists, the working-class and students, coordinating in advocacy and propelling the empowerment for all women. Myanmar acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997. Yet one institutional barrier to achieving gender equality is the lack of opportunities for women and men to pursue feminist study as it is not recognised as an academic area of study at university. Feminism has its origins in an international discourse which has not directly benefitted Myanmar’s education and training: activists who teach women’s empowerment or gender equality (including to mixed gender groups) mentioned there being no specific content in their international nongovernmental organisational (INGO) training material on feminism. Education and training on feminist study are important weapons in gender equality activists’ arsenal to fight misogyny.
Fear of feminism means fear of equality and attitudes on putting women’s rights as a priority is exemplified by one Myanmar’s politician: ‘Yes gender equality is important and interesting, but there are many many things that are important and interesting now….and we simply do not have time for that’. Their dismissal of the fight for equality is highlighted by ‘we do not have time for that’ and they think distractions (‘many many things are important and interesting now’) justify putting the fight for equality for women to the bottom of the pile. It is not surprising that one female activist educator in 2015 said: ‘I still can’t do anything. I feel very suppressed. I feel very confused’. So the ratification of CEDAW in 1997 to gender equality being enshrined in the 2008 constitution to the stepping down of the army and Thein Sein becoming the first democratically elected president of Myanmar: these events do not reflect the contemporary struggle.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggling political career
She is the daughter of Aung San (a martyred national hero due to his instrumental role in fighting for Myanmar’s independence from British rule), a human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 and had a difficult upbringing. Her father, who was the de facto prime minister of what would shortly become independent Myanmar, was assassinated. After completing her study abroad at the University of Oxford, she returned to Myanmar and was quick to speak out against U Ne Win, the military strongman whose rule led to bloodshed as protesters were slaughtered. Aung San Suu Kyi began a nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights which ultimately led to her house arrest and she spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s beacon of hope for democracy and human rights never went out and in 2016 Thein Sein stepped down and she stepped in as leader signifying a new era of revolution for women. Fast forward to present day where the anger at Aung San Suu Kyi’s party gaining strength coupled with the endemic misogyny in the military led to a coup where Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested once again. Her ongoing fight in 2021 against insurgent power is yet to be seen. Could the fact that the reigns of government were handed over to a woman who has been vocal against military actions (well for the most part…her support of a army-led campaign against Rohingya Muslims leading to genocide and human rights abuses has contradicted what she has previously stood against) influenced the coup? Would she have been as vulnerable if she were a man in charge of government? Thein Sein was never detained by the military and in spite of tension his human rights were never compromised in his five-year rule. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention protests have been vocal and symbolic: as women take a front-line role in protests, some have hung traditional sarongs and underwear to spook superstitious police and soldiers who deem it bad luck for men to walk beneath “their inferior’s” clothing.
Written by Prianca Adatia
Prianca Adatia is a columnist at DecipherGrey