With Myanmar’s Most Famous Woman in Custody, Many Others Step up to Take on Junta
International Women's Day celebrations are devoted to fighting the military regime that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi.
As Aung San Suu Kyi marked her fifth week under house arrest on Monday, women across Myanmar mounted a “Sarong Revolution” on International Women’s Day to oppose the military regime that ousted the country’s most famous female.
Women have played a leading role in weeks of mass protests, which erupted after Myanmar’s military seized power on Feb. 1 and ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders. They now face an increasingly violent crackdown.
Security forces have used live bullets, stun grenades and flash bangs to quash the protest movement, killing scores of people and arresting more than 1,800 across Myanmar.
Braving physical danger and arrest, women rallied in the largest city Yangon, and in towns in the border states of Kachin, Chin, and Shan to raise their sarongs – wraparound skirts widely worn in Southeast Asia – as flags of protest for International Women's Day.
“We used to celebrate this day jointly in hand with various government ministries focusing on awareness of women's rights. But this year women are actively taking part in the anti-military protests and we decided to use our sarongs as flags of the column,” said May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network in Myanmar.
Women have used sarongs creatively to protest the coup and frustrate security forces. In many neighborhoods, they string the skirts, known as htamein in Burmese, on ropes across roads. Myanmar superstition holds that walking beneath women’s sarongs is bad luck or shameful for men
“The motto this year is ‘Choose to Challenge.’ And we Myanmar women choose to challenge the military dictatorship,” May Sabe Phyu told RFA.
She said the women in Myanmar are playing an active role in national protests against the military coup and the anti-authoritarian civil disobedience movement, while others support it from behind the scenes.
The first protester to die in the anti-junta demonstrations was a 20-year-old female grocery story worker, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, who was shot in the head in the capital Naypyidaw Feb. 9 and died 10 days later. Also slain in protests was Kyal Sin, a 19-year-old ethnic Chinese woman who was shot in the head on March 3 and became a focus of national anger after troops disturbed her grave to remove her body.
"There are a lot of Myanmar women who had taken leading roles in our history but sadly their brave actions during the revolutions had never been properly recorded. They were heroines behind the curtains,” said May Sabe Phyu.
“But now in this spring revolution, in this fight for democracy, their actions have not gone unnoticed,” she added.
May Sabe Phyu estimated that women make up 60 percent of front-line protest leaders, and roughly 70 to 80 percent of leaders of the broader civil disobedience movement. Women accounted for about 30 percent of those who had been arrested and six of the more than 50 fatalities in five weeks of protest, she said.
“I salute the women of all generations across the nation who have chosen to challenge this aggressive military coup and stand up for federal democracy, freedom, justice and peace in Myanmar in the face of bullets and snipers from the killers,” said Salai Maung Taing San, a medical doctor, philanthropist and civil society activist popularly known as Dr. Sasa.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen since the coup and is believed to be under house arrest in Naypyidaw, Monday was not the first International Woman’s Day in military custody.
Last month’s coup was not even the first time Myanmar’s powerful army cancelled a landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.
As they did in 2020 and 2015, she and the NLD swept 1990 elections, only to have the military nullify the results and put her under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.
Inside Myanmar, the 75-year-old Nobel laureate remains widely admired, even though her international image suffered an immense blow over her defense of the military against genocide-related charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for killings, mass rape, torture, and village burnings that drove 740,000 Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh in 2017.
Cities in Europe responded by stripping Aung San Suu Kyi of freedom awards, three fellow Nobel peace laureates accused her and the military of committing genocide, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum revoked a prestigious human rights award. There were even calls to rescind her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
A “situation analysis” of Myanmar’s women’s rights by the Asian Development Bank published in 2016 said the country of 54 million people had a “mixed narrative on gender equality and women’s rights,” with laws that looked good on paper but offered few protections in a country under great change.
The report found that of total staff of 31 government ministries, an average of 52 percent were women in 2009–2010, with middle-management level posts in 31 ministries filled 37 percent by women.
“Women tend to occupy mid-management positions—director, deputy director, assistant director levels—in government jobs and below, but they rarely are found in senior or senior-most management positions,” the ADB report said, adding that women bear the additional responsibility of unpaid care work at home.
Myanmar’s 12.9 percent female ratio of women holding directly elected seats in all levels of parliament – in the previous 2016-21 term -- compared to Cambodia’s 21.1 percent, Laos’ 25.2 percent and Vietnam’s 25.8 percent, the ADB said.
May Sabe Phyu of the Gender Equality Network said the protests this season are against “not just the military dictatorship … we are going to fight against old ideas on the role of women. We want to root out all these outdated ideas of oppressing women in any way.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert.