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The Revolution is Female: Myanmar’s Women Fighting Against Min Aung Hlaing’s Junta

Civil activism in Myanmar against the military junta is being increasingly led by women. Despite overwhelming odds, they are beginning to have impact. 

Two years after the country’s most recent coup d’état, civic resistance against the military regime in Myanmar continues to gain momentum. The people of Myanmar are known for their unwavering resistance to the different military governments that have controlled the country since the 1960s. To date, previous pro-democracy movements have lacked a gender balance in activist circles and at the frontline. Unlike its predecessors, the current revolution has brought unprecedented gendered changes. Most visually, women are highly visible at all branches of the ongoing anti-authoritarian movement, and they play important leadership roles that have been historically occupied by men – with the exception of Aung San Suu Kyi. For instance, every chief of state in Myanmar since independence has been a man.

Myanmar’s anti-authoritarian social movement encompasses different actors and initiatives, including, among others, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), frontline protests, and the People’s Defense Force (PDF). Women activists have been at the forefront of all these different branches. The very first individuals to take the roads by storm and protest the military coup are women garment workers. The employment sectors specifically targeted by the junta for their dissent through the peaceful CDM, such as education and healthcare, are also dominated by women.

Traditionally, fighting in the armed forces has been solely associated with men. Nationalist propaganda songs taught in grade school, such as “Myanmar Pyi Thar,” (meaning the son of Myanmar in English), have reinforced rigid gender roles in Burmese society; men are to fight for the country and women are to support the brave military men. Women activists of present-day Myanmar have shattered these traditional gendered expectations by taking up arms to fight for democracy in the PDF.

Women activists who have been organising against General Min Aung Hlaing’s junta are also bringing feminist influence into the civic resistance. Perhaps the most famous example of this new feminist activism is the sarong revolution, in which women use their sarongs –  “htamein” in Burmese –  to confront and show their resistance to the military. Many women put up clotheslines full of sarongs in the streets of Myanmar to deter security forces from entering their neighborhoods. The interesting outcome of such behaviour is that the all-male military forces have been hesitant to walk under the sarongs due to the superstitious belief that they would lose their “hpon” – a concept of superior masculine power and honour –  if they did. In Myanmar, the concept of “hpon” is unobtainable to women. Feminist activism is slowly prevailing against the junta and dismantling such concepts of power and honour.

As this episode demonstrates, feminist dissent transcends physical spaces. Since the coup took place in 2021, many women in Myanmar and the diaspora have also adopted social media as a platform where they can express their political opinions against the junta. Women’s online dissent against creeping authoritarianism is not a phenomenon exclusive to Myanmar. Women in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have also taken to social media to speak up against the authoritarian practices of their governments. These brave women activists face certain dangers for their dissent against authoritarian regimes. In Thailand, women pro-democracy activists are criminalised and harassed. Similarly, in Laos and Cambodia, women dissenters face persecution from their respective states, ranging from arrest and disappearance to strip searches, misogynistic and sexist verbal abuse (such as calling women activists impious witches and prostitutes), sexual violence against women dissenters, especially targeted at women from ethnic minority communities, and death.

Women activists in Myanmar are no exception from the gendered authoritarian repression prevalent in the region. In speaking out against the regime’s human rights abuses, women in Myanmar have become vulnerable to targeted violence by the junta and its supporters. This violence and broader harrassment occupy both physical and virtual spaces. In physical spaces, such as prisons and interrogation centers, women detained by the military face verbal insults, threat of rape, excessive body searches, and beating to the point of disfigurement for presenting “unwomanly” traits such as having tattoos. On social media, male-presenting, pro-junta accounts such as Han Nyein Oo and Ba Nyunt regularly use sexist language against women activists and dox their personal information publicly, divulging their locations and opening the space for further assault. Many individuals who experienced doxing by the pro-junta Telegram channels have been persecuted by the regime.

Why should we be concerned about authoritarian violence against women activists in Myanmar? Not only has the junta’s gendered repression affected millions of women in Myanmar and the diaspora, but there is also a sombre potential that other Southeast Asian states, particularly those friendly to the regime, could adopt similar tactics if these are perceived to be successful. This can set back women’s rights in the region at a highly regressive rate.

Southeast Asia has been facing a significant authoritarian turn in the past decade. This political trend puts women activists at risk for the simple reason that autocrats fear women and have traditionally taken extreme measures to eliminate feminist challenges to authoritarian power. Those who want to help turn the tide against authoritarianism within the region must start by amplifying the voices of women activists in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Isabella Aung is a doctoral candidate in Political Studies at Queen’s University where she studies how contemporary authoritarian power is both contested and sustained through social media and how this process is gendered. Her research interests include Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), women of Color’s electoral representation, and women’s activism against authoritarianism.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.