Official language: french
Translated by: Julie Penverne
February 9, 2021: Mya Thwate Khaing, 19 years old, was shot in the head by Burmese police while demonstrating in Naypyidaw against the coup d’etat. Without wanting it, the young grocery shop employee has become a symbol of the revolution and a martyr of the fight for democracy. On social networks, people pay tribute to her. During demonstrations, her face is displayed on banners. And above all, she drew the attention of international organisations to the situation in the country and to the involvement of women in the front line of protests.
The coup d’état of 1 February 2021 in Burma has provoked reactions throughout the country. While the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, is obviously at the heart of the opposition to the military junta, other actors are rising up against the government, particularly ethnic minorities and women. It is the latter who have the most to lose in a deeply patriarchal society and in the face of an all-male army that does not hesitate to use sexist tactics to attack them physically and mentally. At the forefront of the protests, they hang their skirts, underwear and sanitary pads from ropes to challenge the misogynistic superstitions of soldiers. Their action against gender stereotypes takes many forms, in a country that was once one of the most advanced in terms of gender equality in Asia but has seen a sharp reversal in women’s attitudes and rights since the junta took power in 1962.
Political and historical background
The military coup of 1 February brought to a halt a decade of democratic transition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy party, which had won the November 2020 legislative elections. By rejecting the victory and arresting and placing the president under house arrest, the army confirmed a struggle that has dragged on since Burma’s independence in 1948Egreteau, Renaud. « Birmanie : la transition démocratique selon la junte », Critique internationale, vol. no 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 39-47..
Burma’s identity is plagued by nationalism and ethnic conflicts: the territory has 135 different ethnic groups, a disparate population spread accross several states, making it difficult to build a stable democracy. The current borders, drawn during British colonisation, are the source of many conflicts. Following independence, the army guaranteed the unity of the country and has monopolised the political field ever since. In order to maintain its hold on power and hinder any attempt at reform, it promulgated the 2008 Constitution, which guarantees the Union for Solidarity and Development Party – the pro-army party – 25% of the seats in Parliament regardless of the results of the electionsEgreteau, Renaud. « Birmanie : la transition démocratique selon la junte », Critique internationale, vol. no 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 39-47.. Therefore the recent coup d’état has a taste of déjà vu. In 1990, Burma’s first multiparty elections saw the victory of the National Line for Democracy, a victory that was challenged by the army, which placed Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and fierce opponent of the successive juntas at the head of the country, under house arrestLavialle-Prélois, Julie. « La démocratie d’Aung San Suu Kyi. Persistance d’un système ethnonationaliste et militariste en Birmanie », Multitudes, vol. 79, no. 2, 2020, pp. 258-262. History, frustrating as it is, is repeating itself. The streets of Burma are the scene of a civil disobedience movement in response to the psychological warfare launched by the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army. Internet connection cut off at night from 1am to 9am, social networks banned to avoid any communication between the protesters, military convoys, house searches and arbitrary detentions have provoked large-scale demonstrations in the country, 36 years after the bloody repression of the first peaceful mobilisation for democracy. Protestors were dispersed with grenades and tear gas fired by the police. A curfew was put in place, with the military not hesitating to shoot at those who did not respect it.
A deep-rooted patriarchal society
Women are not spared. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a human rights organisation created by former political prisoners between Burma and Thailand, has recorded 863 people killed and 6,028 arrested, of whom 4,863 are still imprisoned since the February coup. Among them, 50 women were killed and nearly 800 arrested. 60% of the protesters are women: on the front line of the demonstrations, they march in large human chains to prevent the forces of order from separating and arresting them.They have played a key role in the struggle for democracy in Burma for years, as they are particularly threatened by the ongoing conflict.
The country is culturally and traditionally patriarchal; this has been accentuated with the ruling army – made up entirely of men – who considers itself as “the father of the nation”. The social hierarchy is constructed in such a way that men have a dominant role and a deeply conservative view of women, who are seen as inferior, weak and impure. The violence exercised by the junta on women protesters is not only violence from the police to the women protesters. They are also deeply misogynistic: sexual violence, abuse, harassment, threats and torture reflect the patriarchal nature of the current government and the brutal backlash that the coup represents. It is often assumed that war is “a man’s business”. Historically, armies have been essentially male, with a low rate of female soldiers. They are often relegated to the wings and do not fight according to the traditional image of combat. But if we broaden the spectrum of study of conflicts, we realise that their participation takes many forms. The capacity of women to act in the conflict is wide, versatile, on all fronts. They are involved in liberation movements, support protests and multiply actions. Rethinking protest to avoid further loss of life is one form of women’s mobilisation in Burma.
The longyiLongyi: traditional Burmese skirt Revolution
Their struggle is called the longyi revolution, a symbolic term that defines well the stakes of the struggle. In Burma, there is a belief that any man who touches or passes under the clothes worn on the lower part of a woman’s body will lose his virility and suffer many misfortunes. This belief is accompanied by a taboo around menstruation: menstruation is seen as something dirty, something to be ashamed of. It is not talked about and not educated about. To justify patriarchal domination, the biological difference between men and women is accentuated, femininity is devalued and treated as impure. In Burma, it is said that only men can reach nirvana, because of their innocence, which is supposedly absent in women. The body is used as a justification for the inequality between the sexes, for the inferiority of women in relation to men. Even though they live in a deeply patriarchal environment, Burmese activists have chosen to thumb their noses at these sexist injunctions by exploiting them to their advantage. By hanging longyi, the traditional Burmese skirts, on clotheslines alongside other underwear and sanitary pads stained with red paint to symbolise blood, the protesters use local superstitions to develop an ingenious tactic. They use the usual symbols of female inferiority, behaviours and objects usually labelled as blasphemous and impure, to fight against the patriarchal order that tries to define them as second-class citizens. In the street, this allows to slow down the advance of soldiers and policemen who do not dare to pass under the clothes nor to touch them, and to give women a significant head start in getting to safety.
Civil disobedience as a means of resistance
According to Htoi Naung, a member of the Shans Women’s Action Network, women in the countryside are often the heads of villages and families and have therefore naturally “found themselves at the head of rural protest movementsIsoux, Carol, « En Birmanie, la révolution des jupes et des sous-vêtements », Libération, 8 mars … Continue reading”. They are the ones who have the most to lose. Previously, Burmese women had many freedoms. Apart from their involvement in the political life of the country and in the creation of businesses, they could keep their “maiden name”, manage their finances and their properties. In addition, they had obtained the right to vote as early as 1922. Anthropologist Melford Spiro said: “Burmese women are not only among the freest in Asia, but until the relative emancipation of women in the West, they enjoyed a freedom and equality with men far greater than Western womenAye, Mimi, Myanmar’s Women Are Fighting for a New Future After a Long History of Military Oppression, Time, 31 mai 2021, https://time.com/6052954/myanmar-womenmilitary/”. When the junta came to power at the time, it forcibly closed down women’s businesses and gradually pushed women out of the country’s economic, political and cultural life.
Today, a similar pattern is being repeated. Aung San Suu Kyi’s name is no longer spoken, nor is her picture shown. The army does not include women either, which further marginalises them and relegates them to so-called passive social roles. One of the demonstrators said, “The progress of feminism [under democracy] has allowed women to see the value of their participation in all sectors, moving the country forward. But under a misogynistic army that makes women totally invisible, we will enter a dark future. Democracy has allowed us to move one step forward, but the return to dictatorship is taking us five steps backKhan, Umayma, “The Women in Myanmar: Our place is in the revolution”, Aljazeera, 25 avril … Continue reading”.
The women’s civil disobedience movement takes the form of strikes in banks, hospitals and schools, boycotts of services held by the military, and refusal to pay taxes. Nurses, doctors and other female medical volunteers enlisted to care for the injured during the protests. Women lawyers and bankers offer their services to provide financial and legal assistance to protesters and those seeking to flee the country, especially during the pandemic. One of them says, “As women, we are supposed to stay in the ‘safe’ areas of the demonstrations, but we know that we belong where help is neededKhan, Umayma, “The Women in Myanmar: Our place is in the revolution”, Aljazeera, 25 avril … Continue reading”
Their commitment puts their jobs at risk, in addition to physical and moral violence within their companies because they are involved in the protests. Yet, it is a price they are willing to pay. They know that the government is dependent on labour to run the country’s economy: if the strikes cause a nationwide economic crisis, these women will continue, even if it affects them personally, since it will also affect the ruling junta. For example, many women textile workers are participating in the protests and appealing to the international community and to multinational companies to denounce the coup.
In addition, the junta uses so-called “dalans,” civilians who are responsible for watching their neighbours, especially women. The goal is to identify people who are not respecting the curfew or preparing for protests, homes that can be easily looted, women who live alone, vulnerable, and easy to harass and arrest. These targeted attacks force women to move and hide constantly. In response to this strategy, women workers and activists band together to identify civilians collaborating with the army to escape searches of their homes. They gather to protest, move in together, and often rely on local and international donations. This makes women easy targets, requiring extra caution when gathering to prepare for protests or communicating about arrests and searches. The LGBTQI+ community is also invested in the struggle for democracy, proudly marching in front of their haters. Transgender, lesbian, and bisexual women are publicly displaying their identity and unity, risking violent repression, as well as house searches, arrests, and arbitrary detentions that force them to flee the country or go into hiding.
Sexual violence as a weapon of war
A woman activist is even in greater danger than male activists, as her opponents possess the destructive tools of the sexist, patriarchal order. The tactics of gang rape, sexual slavery, and public humiliation have been used against Rohingya women for years. Now, female protesters opposing an all-male army risk the same treatment. Rape as a weapon of war is repetitive, collective and massive. Often committed in public, sometimes staged, it aims to dehumanise and establish domination over the opponent and his/her body, destroying him/her both physically and psychologically. It is a tactic of war to neutralise the opponent, a means of destruction that is part of a global climate of violence.
In July 1998, the International Criminal Court listed sexual violence in wartime as follows: “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravityOffice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Violence against Women and Sexual Violence”, Fact Sheet 3, 2003, … Continue reading” . They all constitute an attack on the moral and psychological integrity of the person, on his or her dignity, resulting in serious trauma. There are already many cases of sexual harassment, touching, stripping and prolonged strip-searching in police custody, all practices that belong to the sexual dimension of patriarchy, in Burma and around the world. The sexual violence suffered by Burmese women at the hands of the army is part of this logic: it is the illustration and the vector of a military, police and male domination over their bodies and minds. For Anne-Marie Roucayrol, they represent “an essential component of torture, because they address the most intimate, the most fragile part of the individual”. To be considered a war crime, deliberately targeting civilian populations, it must occur “as part of a widespread or systematic attack” or “as part of a plan or policy or when they are part of a series of similar crimes committed on a large scaleRoucayrol Anne-Marie, « Du viol comme arme de guerre », La Pensée, 2020/4 (N° 404), p. 80-92.”. Rape culture, denial and trivialization of violence, discrediting of women’s voices, impunity of rapists: all of this is linked to the fundamental problem linked to sex and gender inequalities in Burma. By protesting against the army and the government, Burmese revolutionaries are also fighting against the patriarchy. Researcher May Oo Mutraw explains the duality of this struggle: “The Burmese army has always been an exclusively male club. The government too, politics, all that… […] Today Burmese feminists know that if they don’t attack both issues head on, the oppression of the army and patriarchy, even when they win a battle, they will have to fight againIsoux, Carol, « En Birmanie, la révolution des femmes, 27 mars 2021, https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/reportage-international/20210326-en-birmanie-la-r%C3%A9volution-des-femmes”.
Gender issues in Burma are still in the shadows. It is true that Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman, but in power she has never undertaken any feminist or gender-specific action to fight against stereotypesLavialle-Prélois, Julie. « La démocratie d’Aung San Suu Kyi. Persistance d’un système ethnonationaliste et militariste en Birmanie », Multitudes, vol. 79, no. 2, 2020, pp. 258-262.. Civilian women must therefore join forces to build an effective defence strategy. They are now calling for more concrete action, support from the international community and documentation of human rights violations in Burma. Since February, the violence has escalated. The protests are no longer simply a contest between two rival parties, the army and the National League for Democracy. The resistance movement has grown to become intersectional, including women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQI+ community in an alliance to make their demands heard. The demonstrators are fighting for the next generations, to offer them a more equal society. The fight against Burma’s most deeply patriarchal institution is not easy, and the movement has already suffered many casualties. The risk is that the abuse of women’s bodies will grow, as it did with the Rohingya women, and become a collective, systematic phenomenon aimed at the physical and mental annihilation of the protesters.
What support will the international community give to the Burmese crisis in the coming weeks? Will it be able to distinguish between the so-called classic violence against the demonstrators and the misogynistic violence suffered by Burmese women, and to provide appropriate solutions? And even if Aung San Suu Kyi were to return to power, would the women protesters be able to make her hear their feminist demands and open up a space for negotiations for a more effective fight against gender stereotypes in Burma? These are all questions that remain unanswered for the time being, and only the next stages of the conflict can provide answers.
Aye, Mimi, Myanmar’s Women Are Fighting for a New Future After a Long History of Military Oppression, Time, 31 mai 2021, https://time.com/6052954/myanmar-women-military/
Egreteau, Renaud. « Birmanie : la transition démocratique selon la junte », Critique internationale, vol. no24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 39-47.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Violence against Women and Sexual Violence”, Fact Sheet 3, 2003, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CD/Fiche3_violence_sexuelle_FINAL.pdf
Isoux, Carol, « En Birmanie, la révolution des jupes et des sous-vêtements », Libération, 8 mars 2021, https://www.liberation.fr/international/asie-pacifique/en-birmanie-la-revolution-des-jupes-et-des-sous-vetements-20210308_J6ZE2FWBFZCBBGS2NK3DHV6W2E/
Khan, Umayma, “The Women in Myanmar: Our place is in the revolution”, Aljazeera, 25 avril 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/4/25/women-of-myanmar-stand-resilient-against-the-military-coup
Lavialle-Prélois, Julie. « La démocratie d’Aung San Suu Kyi. Persista
nce d’un système ethnonationaliste et militariste en Birmanie », Multitudes, vol. 79, no. 2, 2020, pp. 258-262.
Roucayrol Anne-Marie, « Du viol comme arme de guerre », La Pensée, 2020/4 (N° 404), p. 80-92.
To quote this article: Anaïs Gancel, “Les femmes birmanes en première ligne des manifestations contre la junte : désobéissance civile et revendications féministes. TW : viol, violences sexuelles”, 26.07.2021, Gender in Geopolitics Institute.
The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.
|↑1, ↑2||Egreteau, Renaud. « Birmanie : la transition démocratique selon la junte », Critique internationale, vol. no 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 39-47.|
|↑3||Lavialle-Prélois, Julie. « La démocratie d’Aung San Suu Kyi. Persistance d’un système ethnonationaliste et militariste en Birmanie », Multitudes, vol. 79, no. 2, 2020, pp. 258-262|
|↑4||Longyi: traditional Burmese skirt|
|↑5||Isoux, Carol, « En Birmanie, la révolution des jupes et des sous-vêtements », Libération, 8 mars 2021, https://www.liberation.fr/international/asie-pacifique/en-birmanie-la-revolution-des-jupes-et-des-sous-vetements-20210308_J6ZE2FWBFZCBBGS2NK3DHV6W2E/|
|↑6||Aye, Mimi, Myanmar’s Women Are Fighting for a New Future After a Long History of Military Oppression, Time, 31 mai 2021, https://time.com/6052954/myanmar-womenmilitary/|
|↑7, ↑8||Khan, Umayma, “The Women in Myanmar: Our place is in the revolution”, Aljazeera, 25 avril 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/4/25/women-of-myanmar-stand-resilient-against-the-military-coup|
|↑9||Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Violence against Women and Sexual Violence”, Fact Sheet 3, 2003, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CD/Fiche3_violence_sexuelle_FINAL.pdf|
|↑10||Roucayrol Anne-Marie, « Du viol comme arme de guerre », La Pensée, 2020/4 (N° 404), p. 80-92.|
|↑11||Isoux, Carol, « En Birmanie, la révolution des femmes, 27 mars 2021, https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/reportage-international/20210326-en-birmanie-la-r%C3%A9volution-des-femmes|
|↑12||Lavialle-Prélois, Julie. « La démocratie d’Aung San Suu Kyi. Persistance d’un système ethnonationaliste et militariste en Birmanie », Multitudes, vol. 79, no. 2, 2020, pp. 258-262.|