The Women of Myanmar and their Role in the Fight for Democracy

Anushka Narayan
15th January 2022

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

It was on the morning of February 1, 2021 when the Military led Coup took control over Myanmar effectively disbarring the democratically elected members of the ruling party, The National League for Democracy. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, returned the nation to a stratocracy, which refers to a government run by the military chiefs and the army. It was the day when the Parliament was to meet for the first time, is when the junta arrested Aung Saan Suu Kyi along with former president Win Myint and several other political leaders. The Tatmadaw declared a state of emergency, which implies that they were free to occupy power for the following year. Myanmar’s Junta has been ruthlessly suppressing any form of dissent and protest. From February 12 to November 17, 2021, an estimated 1222 people had been killed, out of which almost 100 children and 89 women lost their lives. The military rule has been met by strong opposition from the people, and widespread protests have been taking place all over Myanmar.

Despite the violence and brutality of the Junta, the protests continue to take place in full swing, with the citizens along with women and ethnic minority groups banding together to form their own insurgent armies, affectively forming their armed resistance against the military. A hallmark of these protests is the active involvement of the women of Myanmar. Although they have contributed to protests similar like this in the past, according to a study by Peace Research Institute Oslo, women were made to take on subordinate roles and their importance in bringing peace to Myanmar was severely undermined. In the current situation, women have produced creating solutions to continue their fight for restoration of democracy in their country.

Unlike the guns and machines of the army, the women have been using an even more powerful tool- their femininity. In a country like Myanmar, where women have been viewed as inferior to men, this tool has proved to be extremely powerful.  The women are bringing to the fight new and innovative approaches to fight the Tatmadaw. To impede the advancing army, women demonstrators hoisted traditional women’s sarongs and undergarments over the streets. They are making clever use of the long-held idea that if women’s sarongs and underwear rise directly above men’s heads, men’s male supremacy, hpon, will evaporate. The advancing armed troops were forced to stop based on these tactics. They were afraid to cross the clotheslines, and the women were able to save several lives on this particular day.

The regime responded with more brutality, making such tactics illegal and raiding the households of any women who did participate in this protest. The women, however, continue to fight back. Another tactic used in the pro-democracy protests is to paste undergarments, sarongs, and used sanitary pads on images of Coup Leader, Min Aung Hlaing, to defame and humiliate the armed forces and force them to stop in their tracks. The women have been protesting at the front lines in areas that have been termed as ‘protest zones’ to stop the military from encroaching into their land any further. Violence has been predominant at the protests, and the Junta has been cracking down on the resistance, with over 12,000 people being charged or jailed, and more than 1,300 of this number being women.

Since the Coup began, the citizens of the country have been forming their own insurgent groups known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). The women of the nation have been forming their own all-female PDFs, bringing together women from all diverse levels of society. Many never imagined suddenly taking up arms after preparing for professions such as teaching and nursing, but they have showed great bravery and enthusiasm in restoring democracy to their nation. Pictures of the training sessions have been circulated on social media, and the self-defense groups have been crafting their very own hand-crafted rifles. The women of Myanmar have made great leaps in women’s right, and are proving to the Junta that they are also a force to be reckoned with.

However, this too comes with several dangers and risks. Women have for long been the more vulnerable in Myanmar, and the armed forces have been reacting with great brutality. There have been several reports and incidents of women allegedly being tortured both physically and sexually in detention camps. Democracy activists and women who participated in the protests have been gone missing for months, and those who have returned have suffered great injury. With the third wave hitting the county, cases hit an all-time due to the protests; and the health care industry has also taken a huge hit. Myanmar’s already inadequate healthcare access has only gotten worse following the takeover. Hundreds of health workers have gone underground because of the crisis, as the Tatmadaw, continues to pursue them for their role in the resistance movement. The junta has refused to enable medics to aid individuals in severe need, even in the face of a lethal third wave of COVID-19. Female health care workers have also not been spared by these attacks, and are being punished for any involvement in the protests.

The lives of women continue to be under major threat, with increasing number of women being subjected to harsh conditions and being forced into the detention camps. Still, the brave women of Myanmar continue to fight on, hoping to pave the way for the generations to come, hoping to restore democracy once and for all.

*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS)

Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author