Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr.
On 1st February 2021, the Myanmar Military declared a one-year “State of Emergency” and detained the incumbent State Counsellor Daw Aung San Su Kyi and President U Win Myint, along with other key officials.
International and domestic actors, including the general global community, condemned the move and called it a “Military Coup”. The news has devastated the millions of people who voted and showed unwavering support for the National League for Democracy, which had won a landslide victory in the 2020 General Election held on 8 December. Moreover, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are currently being banned as a way of silencing people since the coup began. “Army cut off the state media TV and radios, local phone line and internet getting disabled across the country,” tweeted Burmese Reuters journalist Wa Lone.
The coup shatters the hopes and dreams of Myanmar citizens, especially the younger generation, who are devastated that their freedom has been taken away from them overnight.
Meanwhile, netizen-led social media campaigns and non-violent methods of protest, such as the banging of pots and pans and other civil disobedience movements have triggered people to peacefully protest against the military coup. Banging pots and pans is a traditional Myanmar way of driving evil out of the village or house. The “Civil Disobedience Movement” led by medical professionals is gaining momentum and has attracted other professionals and civil servants from the various universities and ministries to protest the coup.
Feminists in Myanmar have won achievements in policy over the past 10 years through their consistent advocacy. Major milestones include the Launch of the National Strategic Action Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) and passing of the Prevention of Violence Against Women (PoVAW) Bill in 2019. The coup has grave policy implications on women rights, in particular, on the issue of violence against women in Myanmar.
Prevention of violence against women law (PoVAW)
The recent move by the military will have many policy implications on the progress made by women groups and the UN/international organisations. For example, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-led government adopted a package of four laws, known as “Race and Religion Protection Laws” in 2015. The four laws were met with strong opposition by women’s rights groups and the international community as the laws discriminated against women and other ethnic and religious minority groups. Myanmar currently does not have a specific law that penalises the perpetration of domestic violence. In January 2019, the PoVAW Bill was introduced in the state-owned media and called for wider public consultation. Since 2010, women groups in Myanmar have been tirelessly advocating for the Bill to be legislated. Meanwhile, the PoVAW Bill remains in limbo. Survivors and victims of domestic violence continue to remain unprotected.
Sexual violence in the conflict-affected areas
There is significant evidence of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls in the conflict and post-conflict areas, which have been documented by women’s groups in Myanmar. Consequently, the Myanmar military has been highlighted by the UN Secretary-General for its perpetration of sexual violence against women in the northern Rakhine region of Myanmar, in particular, against Rohingya women. As a follow-up action, the Government of Myanmar (GoM) and the United Nations issued a joint communique through the office of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in December 2018. These ongoing mechanisms are now at risk of being sidelined, considering the Myanmar Military itself is a perpetrator of sexual violence.
The pandemic and livelihood
Myanmar is a developing country which relies on exporting commodities and unskilled labour. According to the International Labour Organization, approximately 600,000 to 79,000 jobs in the garment sector could be disrupted due to the pandemic. This has an enormous impact on women. Existing data from the Myanmar Garment Manufacture Association shows that 90 per cent of the garment industry is made up of young women. In addition, women typically bear the largest reproductive responsibility for families – and this gets harder with increases in food prices and fuel.
The debate about gender equality
Elite women in Myanmar have consistently rejected the existence of gender inequality in Myanmar. Feminist scholars and activists argue that gender inequality is intersectional and violence against women is symbolic of gender inequality in Myanmar. The Department of Social Welfare is the focal ministry for women’s affairs and an essential institution of the UN/INGOs working towards gender equality in Myanmar. The appointment of someone with power and wealth and Myanmar’s rhetoric on the “myth of gender equality” by elite women may resurface in the Department where many policy discussions on women’s issues take place. For instance, concerns have been raised about the recent appointment of Dr Thet Thet Khine, who lost the election to the NLD in the 2020 General Election as the Union Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, and her stance on gender equality and women’s rights in Myanmar.
All in all, feminist activism has utilised the transnational feminist movement to influence policymaking in Myanmar. Advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality was adopted by the ‘civilian government’ and has influenced policy-making to advance women’s rights and well-being through international mechanisms.
Therefore, Myanmar women cannot afford to let the Myanmar Military reverse the progress which has been achieved in the past decade. The time is now to send this message loud and clear and show solidarity through sisterhood.
This blog post was originally published by Women Unbounded and can be found here.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.