50.50: Interview

‘We’re unstoppable’: Meet the women leading Myanmar’s protests

These are some of the bold and brave women who have taken to the streets to protest against the military coup and demand a return to democracy

Macarena Aguilar Maggi Quadrini
Macarena Aguilar Maggi Quadrini
24 February 2021, 12.00am
Illustrations: Inge Snip

Myanmar’s women have a message for the country’s military: “You’ve messed with the wrong generation!”

As tension increases throughout the country following the 1 February military coup, women of all ages in major towns and cities across Myanmar have flooded the streets to call for the reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected government.

But the military has responded with an increasingly violent crackdown, highlighted by the death of 20-year-old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who died after being shot in the head by security forces during a peaceful protest in the country’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, last week.

Khaing’s death has not deterred the protesters, however. They march on, with veteran women’s rights activists and young feminist organisers telling openDemocracy that their movement is “unstoppable”.

May Sabe Phyu of the Gender Equality Network (GEN)

May Sabe Phyu

“We are angry and we also feel sad,” said leading women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu, in disbelief that her own daughters and other youth around the country are having to “sacrifice their lives” fighting for democracy once again.

In 1988, Myanmar (then known as Burma) was engulfed for six months by student-led protests against the dictator Ne Win. The protests ended with a coup that put a military junta in charge of the country for the next 22 years. Two decades later, in 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution saw thousands of Myanmar's monks and nuns rise up against the military regime.

“This time, women are standing at the front and, in many cases, they are leading the protests, which makes us proud,” said Phyu. She heads the Gender Equality Network (GEN), a coalition of more than 100 organisations spread across the country. “Over the past ten years we have worked tirelessly to expose the many forms of gender-based discrimation and violence,” she added.

This time, women are standing at the front and, in many cases, they are leading the protests

May Sabe Phyu

One example is the Prevention of Violence against Women Law. “We spent so much time and resources drafting this particular law, which now, more than ever, is so badly needed,” Phyu laments. With the army back in full control, the chances of seeing this law passed are negligible.

“Women’s rights have never been part of the military agenda. They may pretend they care, but it's all lies. In their view, the role of women is to preserve culture and religion,” she said.

Phyu has been frantically lobbying the international community since the military coup to raise the concerns of women’s rights organisations and plead for their support. “We’ve coordinated a statement condemning the coup, we’ve met with embassies and donors, we’ve written letters to the UN Human Rights Council and to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” she said.

“Everyone must know that this is our last fight. If we don’t win this time, they will win forever. That is why I will not give up.”

Tin Tin Nyo of the Burmese Women's Union

Tin Tin Nyo

“We keep saying that history is repeating itself,” said Tin Tin Nyo from the Burmese Women’s Union and a veteran women’s rights defender. “But what’s new this time is that everyone in the country – across ethnic groups, party lines and religious beliefs – is coming together to rally against the military coup.”

“Even the participation of women from all walks of life is unprecedented,” she said. “Especially young women – the so-called Generation Z – are organising across the spectrum; they are visible and vocal. They are factory workers, teachers, health and bank workers. I would say that more than 50% of those joining the disobedience movement are women.”

She said that when Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing was shot in the head, it spurred even more anger and determination from protesters. “This is now unstoppable. Regardless of the risks they or their loved ones may face, people are determined to abolish the coup,” said Tin Tin.

Regardless of the risks they or their loved ones may face, people are determined to abolish the coup

Tin Tin Nyo

Tin Tin’s own network is supporting the demonstrations: “We are keeping an eye on rumours and fake news spreading on social media, and we are staying vigilant for reports of sexual violence, harrassment and torture against the women that have joined the movement.”

But she adds, “Without their [the international community’s] continued pressure against the military and their active support of the pro-democracy movement, we may break down.”

Anonymous feminist activist

Anonymous feminist activist

“I couldn’t sleep during the first week of the coup – I was paranoid then and I am still paranoid at night,” said a feminist activist who preferred not to use her real name for security reasons. “As a child from a politically active family, I remembered how my family members were intimidated by the military intelligence and special branch,” she said.

She explains that the current wave of protests started with a general strike by factory workers a few days after the military coup. Most of those workers were women.

“The factory workers’ strike catalysed the later protests happening on every street and township of Yangon [the largest city in Myanmar],” she said.

“But we still have a long way to go. It is not enough to take down a particular dictator – we must also fight against sexism and racism. We have all experienced violence from both the state and society, so I think, this time, we really can build political solidarity among women coming from all walks of life to fight for our emancipation.”

It is not enough to take down a particular dictator – we must also fight against sexism and racism

Anonymous feminist activist

She describes how people used to dismiss ‘Gen-Z’ as apolitical. “That’s wrong. They’re using all the resources they can (technology, art, music, dance) to express their concerns. They don't want the next generation to blame them if they can't win this fight.”

Naw K’nyaw Paw of the Karen Women’s Organisation

Naw K’nyaw Paw

Naw K’nyaw Paw has been a women’s rights activist most of her life. She has worked for Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), an indigenous women’s group with more than 65,000 members, since 1999. In 2013, she was elected its general secretary. Based in Thailand along the Myanmar border, Naw K’nyaw Paw has had a hard time sleeping since news broke of the military coup.

“I am thinking about those who are fleeing, those who are protesting and everyone against the coup calling for the restoration of democracy and the abolition of the 2008 constitution,” she said. (The constitution was drafted by the military and grants them political influence including for instance 25% of seats in legislatures.)

“I’ve always thought that women are constantly the ones making changes. They are bold, they have courage and they speak truth to power. They challenge the military dictatorship and organise people and, by doing so, live to be an example and inspire many around them.”

She urges the international community to listen to women’s voices on the ground, especially internally displaced people and refugees. “They are the ones who know the situation the best.”

Than, feminist activist, podcaster and storyteller

Nandar

“I’m not doing well,” said Than, a well-known feminist activist who tells stories of women’s resistance through her podcasts. “I think that mentally and physically, myself and other activists are experiencing a similar feeling. The anticipation of worse things to come is heavy. This thought has been haunting us since the day the coup took place. We’re not grieving the fact that they took over, but that the military is capable of doing things to ruin our present and future lives. It’s overwhelming.”

Than says she is reading, playing her ukulele and exercising on her bicycle, to keep her mind and spirit fresh. She’s also talking to people to learn how the situation is impacting those in her community. She is adamant that conversations on dismantling the patriarchy continue.

Than has noticed that some of the placards protesting against Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military leader, are comparing him in a derogatory way to intimate parts of a woman’s body.

“These signs are sexist. They are degrading Min Aung Hlaing by degrading women’s bodies. I want to encourage people to protest with feminist values,” said Than.

“Women were never given the spotlight before, because the media was guided by patriarchal values and amplified the voices of men. I think it’s great that we are now finally seeing women for what they do, and how they contribute to society,” said Than.

“People who have never done activism are now getting involved in different ways,” she said. “What I love most is that the protests do not have a specific group of leaders. Everyone is out because they care and do not want this dictatorship to rule the country.”

How is the British police crackdown bill a threat to democracy?

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill creates new stop-and-search powers, allows the police to put more conditions on protests, and threatens Gypsy and Traveller rights to roam.

It's been met with mass protests from Bristol to Belfast. Is this bill a threat to our human rights – and is there any stopping it now?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time, Thursday 15 April

Hear from:

Gracie Bradley Director of Liberty
Moya Lothian-Mclean Politics editor at gal-dem
Luke Smith Founder of GRT [Gypsy, Roma and Traveller] Socialists
Zarah Sultana Labour MP
Chair: Nandini Archer Global commissioning editor, openDemocracy

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