JULY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.7
Women in the Movement
A handful of prominent female activists have made a significant mark on Burmese dissident politics, but true equality of the sexes remains elusive
By VIOLET CHO and AYE LAE
Phyu Phyu Thin, far right, works with volunteers in an HIV/AIDS patient center in Rangoon.
THREE days after Cyclone Nargis struck southwestern Burma on May 2-3, social activist Phyu Phyu Thin bravely came out of hiding to help victims of the storm.
“I knew that our patients were suffering desperately after the cyclone, so I wanted to be here for them and try my best to help,” said Phyu Phyu Thin, an HIV/AIDS activist and youth leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
“They are poor, and now the storm has destroyed their lives. They’ve lost family, and they have no food or place to stay,” said the well-known activist, who went into hiding last August after taking part in protests against the Burmese junta.
Phyu Phyu Thin belongs to a new generation of female activists who are able to compete with their male counterparts in organizations that strive to promote democracy in Burma. She is also part of a proud tradition of women who have made their mark on Burmese politics.
Women like Mya Sein, who was selected as a representative of Asian women at the League of Nations in 1931; colonial-era senators Hnin Ma and Dr Saw Hsa; and post-independence minister for Karen State, Ba Maung Chain, paved the way for women in Burmese politics.
But the strides made by these early advocates of a more prominent role for women on the national political stage were soon erased when Ne Win imposed military rule on Burma in 1962. After this, women who wanted more than a token role in politics had to join dissident groups.
Despite the progress made by women like Phyu Phyu Thin, however, many people say that there is still a significant lack of gender equality at the highest levels of the Burmese pro-democracy movement.
As the leader of an NLD-affiliated social welfare group working with HIV/AIDS patients, Phyu Phyu Thin insists that gender is not an important factor in her organization: “Men and women can work together regardless of gender,” she said in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy.
Other women also say that activists’ strong sense of sharing a common cause makes differences between men and women seem irrelevant.
“We didn’t think a lot about gender,” said a former political prisoner and student activist who took part in protests in 1988 and 1996, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Change in Burma is the responsibility of every citizen.”
Despite the views of these women, however, others say that Burmese women who strive to become key decision-makers still face numerous hurdlesa fact that can be easily forgotten because of the existence of a small number of high-profile leaders such as Phyu Phyu Thin and Aung San Suu Kyi.
A pro-democracy Burmese activist in exile holds a poster of Burma’s democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest march in New Delhi, India, on June 19, Suu Kyi’s 63rd birthday. (Photo: AFP)
A cursory look at the makeup of key political organizations in the democracy movement reveals that women make up less than 1 percent of the leadership.
This fact can be largely attributed to cultural factors, such as the traditional view that a woman’s place is in the home, a failure to appreciate the need to educate girls and a belief that men possess “hpoun,” a power derived from meritorious actions in past lives.
Meanwhile, in ethnic minority political organizations, the close association with armed groups has resulted in a militaristic culture that many regard as inherently male-centered.
But according to Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Karen National Union (KNU) and a leading figure in the Karen Women’s Organization, the most important factor limiting women is their lack of education.
“Women don’t participate in the economic, social and political arena because they haven’t had a chance to study. When they are growing up, many girls have to stay home to help take care of their families, so they don’t go to school. This means that women have limited knowledge compared to men,” she said.
She went on to explain that traditionally, men are considered to be the leaders of the family and the country. The idea that women should focus on caring for their husbands and children prevents them from aspiring to a more active life outside the home.
Only with education and encouragement will women learn to have higher ambitions, she said.
A lack of moral support is often mentioned by women leaders of the democracy movement as one of the key difficulties they encounter.
Day Day Paw, the first and only female Central Executive Committee member of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), said her parents never encouraged her to study.
But this hasn’t stopped many exiled activists from keeping women’s issues on the agenda of the struggle against military rule.
“We were ignored throughout history,” said Khin Ohmar. “It should not happen again.”
“They always told me to stay home and take care of the farm and look after my younger brother and sister,” she said. When her family forced her to stop studying in the ninth standard, she ran away to join the revolution.
“I regret that I didn’t get a higher education,” she said. “Even though I am now a leader in the main Karenni political organization, it can be difficult for me to have my voice heard.”
The lack of educational opportunities that many women face is not limited to their youth, however.
“I need to spend a lot of time taking care of my five children and my husband, so I can’t find time to read books or newspapers or listen to the radio, which makes it more difficult to communicate with men,” said Day Day Paw.
As the wife of the KNPP’s prime minister, Day Day Paw is regarded as the “first lady” of the Karenni people, as well as a leader in her own right. But this doesn’t prevent her from openly criticizing the KNPP for failing to promote women in the party. She is also outspoken about the need to offer encouragement to women who wish to pursue political careers.
For Myint Myint San, a member of the Thailand-based Burmese Women’s Union, the root cause of many of these problems is the traditional religious belief in hpoun, which ascribes male domination to the inherent spiritual superiority of men, based upon their past merit.
Because of this deeply ingrained cultural belief, many women come to accept a lower status or feel powerless to rise above their current station in life. This makes it difficult for most women to even imagine a more active role in politics.
In border areas, where armed conflict has been a fact of life for generations, women are further discouraged from pursuing political careers by the perception that only those with proven military track records are qualified to lead.
Myint Myint San said that many men regard themselves as “protectors” of women, and therefore as the rightful leaders of society. This view, she argued, does not do justice to the strength of women.
“In fact, we have to protect ourselves, and besides this, we have to sacrifice our lives to serving our soldier husbands,” she said.
To achieve equality, she said, women must be prepared to go to battlenot in the jungle, alongside men, but against cultural assumptions that confine them to their homes.
They should never stop educating themselves; they must also educate men about their true potential and their contribution to society.
“If there is no equality between sexes and classes there can be no justice,” said Myint Myint San. “Equal opportunity and equal participation are the keys to developing and improving any society.”
There is a great deal that women can do individually to show men what they are capable of, but ultimately, it will require a concerted effort on the part of many highly motivated women to make a lasting change.
“If we want a new system, we need to have constitutional acts to deal with women’s affairs,” said Khin Ohmar, a founding member of the Women’s League of Burma, an umbrella group of exiled Burmese women’s organizations. “If we women do not unite and work systematically, we will be left behind the male leadership.”
Today’s women leaders are playing an important role in supporting and encouraging more women to engage in political activism, promoting the idea that women have to take joint responsibility for Burma’s development.
“I really do not like it when other women say that they are weak,” said Zipporah, the executive secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and a member of the KNU’s Central Executive Committee.
“Although tradition and the political system in our country work against Burmese women, we can still try hard to overcome the obstacles we now face and battle to change the ruthless system,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the KNPP, Day Day Paw has been busy encouraging a generation of women to take leadership positions in the party. “We will see change in the next KNPP election,” she said confidently.
Women activists inside Burma have the extra problem of working under the restrictions of the military regime, which makes debate around this issue all the more difficult.
“We cannot provide a place to empower women and teach them what they can do for the movement,” said Lae Lae, a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee. “We don’t have any resources to educate young women.”
Until there is real change inside the country, it seems that the majority of Burmese women will remain subordinate to men.