The current military dictatorship that ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Mying, and other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has had devastating effects on civilians collectively across the country. With more than 700 killed, thousands unlawfully arrested, and countless protesters injured, the coup not only threatens democracy and basic human rights, it also disproportionately impacts women and gender minorities. A military with a lengthy history of gender-based violence and patriarchal oppression coupled with no measures of accountability makes these protests intrinsically linked to women’s rights. Although much of Western media has failed to highlight women’s unique involvement in the protests, women have been active on the frontlines every day since February 1st (the date of the coup), refusing to allow history to repeat itself.
Militarism and Gender-Based Violence in Myanmar
The history of military rule in Myanmar is marked with authoritarianism, hypermasculinity, sexual violence, and political repression. During the military junta’s control in Myanmar from 1962 to 2011, women were denied participation in any form of decision making, excluded from positions of power, and economically marginalized. The failure to invest in economic and social infrastructure during the 50-year junta regime made it challenging for women in the rural areas, those who were part of ethnic minority groups or those living in poverty. In an article titled “Myanmar’s Coup is Devastating for Women” in Foreign Policy, author Michelle Onello asserts that military spending on education and healthcare allocated for “1 to 3 percent of gross domestic product for that period, compared to 20 to 30 percent devoted to the military.” This negatively impacted maternal and infant mortality rates.
The political, economic and social decisions made during military rule perpetuated a culture of gender inequality in Myanmar, not only preventing women’s inclusive participation in society, but it also increased rates of physical and sexual violence. In a 2018 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, it discovered, “a direct nexus between the lack of gender equality more generally within the country and within ethnic communities, and the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence.” Further, the study revealed that women and girls from ethnic minority communities were disproportionately victimized.
The Myanmar military has been a key perpetrator of sexual violence against women in ethnic minority communities, with clear and credible reports of military officials using sexual violence to intimidate civilians on a regular basis. Cynthia Enloe has written extensively about the linkages between militarization and gender-based violence. She argues that the patriarchy is deeply rooted in militarism, making women’s oppression imminent in militant ideology. The Myanmar military is no exception, with United Nations experts asserting that in northern regions and ethnic states of Myanmar where large military presence exists, women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence from security officials. Hyper-masculine militarism coupled with absence of structural accountability measures makes this coup undeniably devastating for women in Myanmar.
The Women’s League of Burma estimates that up to 60 percent of those protesting are women. Further, women also account for 40 percent of those arrested. Many women have already been subjected to violence during clashes with police, including 3 young women killed by police on March 3rd. Additionally, images from protests show police forcefully pushing women and pulling their clothes off. Despite the violence they ensue, women and organisations fighting for gender equality have been critical in maintaining the momentum of the protests by taking on crucial roles. Although many of the hyper visible women in the protests are upper and middle class, Foreign Policy asserts, “[…] rural female activists, drag queens, ethnic minority women in traditional clothing, female garment workers, Rohingya women, LGBTI community members, and gender minorities from other marginalized groups have also joined the anti-coup movement.”
Women from all backgrounds are present on the frontlines; cleaning up debris from previous protests, doctors volunteering as medics, lawyers offering legal advice to protesters, bankers giving financial advice, aided with activist strategies such as boycotting services to halt military income, handing out safety gear, and offering safe spaces to those fleeing military and police aggression. Jessie Lau from Foreign Policy notes the clever ways women are “weaponizing gender to fight both the military and the patriarchy,” by using traditional gender norms and taboos to rebel against the misogynistic military coup.
After a long day of protesting, some women return to their homes and bang pots and pans together which mirrors a “domestic practice traditionally used to drive out evil spirits,” that has moulded into an anti-coup action. In another example, women began to hang up htaimein (women’s undergarments and sarongs). One young activist interviewed by Aljazeera explains how these garments are perceived as, ”unclean” and that, “coming into contact or walking under these is believed to bring bad luck, reducing one’s hpone – masculine superiority – in Buddhist belief.” Many protesting men have even started to wear traditional women’s clothing to signify their support for women’s rights. This form of protest has prevented military and police officials from targeting certain areas due their patriarchal views about women’s bodies as being dirty or impure. Similarly, some women have drenched sheets in red paint to emulate menstrual blood, draping them over photos of powerful military officials. One unidentified protester interviewed by Aljazeera stated that the acts of protest mentioned above have allowed women to reclaim, “their status against the same patriarchal attitudes that perceive them as lesser in society.”
As expected, military and police forces have responded to the increase in women’s participation and visibility in the anti-coup movement by purposefully targeting women for sexual assault. Historically, the Myanmar military has used sexual violence against Rohingya women and women from other marginalized backgrounds, and it is feared by many that these practices will become more prevalent as the protests continue.
There is a strong feminist consciousness among women from various backgrounds in Myanmar, highlighting how critical women’s liberation and intersectional feminism is to democracy. The ways in which women have reclaimed potentially harmful gender norms to fight back against the patriarchy and the coup signifies the strength that movements can have when they are unified and seek to liberate those most marginalized.