The revolution is ours

Women across Myanmar have long taken leading roles protecting their villages, land, and forests. We continue to be marginalised, perceived as weak or incapable, but it is women who for generations have courageously led communities through periods of adversity.

The military coup on February 1 crushed the hopes and futures of people throughout the country, and we began a descent back into the nightmare of complete army control. It is hard to find the words to describe the pain we continue to suffer under the military’s domination.

But yet again we see women—teachers, garment factory workers, nurses, lawyers—leading the grassroots movement against the junta, standing at the forefront of demonstrations, organising communities, providing support and care for villages and neighbourhoods.

It is women who are again guiding people out of the darkness.

We have no choice. We know that authoritarian military patriarchal rule has grave implications for women throughout the country; the tyranny that the military imposes upon women’s bodies is unbearable. Rape and sexual assault have long been weaponised by Myanmar’s armed forces against populations in every ethnic state in the country. We have seen this pattern repeated since the coup, now in towns and cities where no one is safe travelling, sleeping or passing through checkpoints. Every act of daily life poses new dangers.

This is why we must stand up, we must fight, and we must win.

Demonstrators flash the defiant three-finger salute as they hold placards supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) during a protest against military coup in Yangon on March 10 (EPA-EFE)

In their April briefing paper, the Women’s League of Burma reported that more than 800 women had been detained and more than 40 killed since the coup. From those who have been detained there have been reports of torture and grievous sexual violence by the regime’s troops.

Airstrikes and artillery shellings in Kachin, Karen and Kayah states have collectively displaced well over 100,000 people. Among them are pregnant women, children, and the elderly, languishing in squalid camps, hiding the jungle like animals, or, in the case of Karen State, stuck on the banks of the Salween River, unable to cross the border to Thailand.

“There is no more peace and security for women,” one human rights defender from Kachin State told me recently. She noted that the discrimination and gender-based violence of the past had worsened in the years prior to the coup, and that shootings and sexual assault perpetrated against women were common due to the civil war and Myanmar military occupation of Kachin lands.

Since the coup, this “culture of male violence,” as she described it, has intensified.

“It hurts a lot, and it is completely unacceptable. There is no rule of law, no protection—the law has been abolished by the military. The situation is hopeless,” she said.

Even as the any guarantee for our safety deteriorates, women continue to be at the forefront of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which aims to unseat the junta. Its main tool of resistance is a general strike, where people from across all sectors have refused to return to work until democracy is restored.

5. Medical workers flash the defiant three-finger salute as a symbol of resistance against the military coup in Yangon on February 22 (Myanmar Now)

Much of the CDM campaign has been led by women-dominated industries, as workers sacrifice their wages and their physical safety for the future of the country. Participation in the CDM comes with the risk of arrest, torture and murder by the junta. It started early: in mid-February, two female teachers who had joined the CDM were beaten and arrested in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina.

Even after the military forced schools to open on June 1, more than half of the country’s 400,000 teachers have refused to work while the junta is in power. Most of those on strike are believed to be women. Teachers in the CDM have been temporarily or permanently suspended from their jobs, and more than 100 are facing criminal charges by the regime. Many no longer dare to live in cities and towns and have fled to rural areas, with some even hiding in the jungle.

One ethnic Karen teacher on strike in Tanintharyi told me she was not going back to work because she does not want to “live as a slave under the military dictatorship.”

“I do not want to be involved in any administrative machinery that will prolong the new military dictatorship. I do not want to pass on this slave education system to the new generation,” she explained as to why she continues her strike.

She is one of many women throughout the civil service who is sacrificing her own safety and livelihood for the benefit of future generations.

Teachers attend prayers for their former coleague Tin Nwe Yi who was killed during a crackdown on anti-coup protesters, in Yangon on March 1 (EPA- EFE)

Women have also been integral in leading protests against the military, using the power of their own womanhood to destroy the army’s control. The htamein campaign—in which women’s sarongs were used as flags or strung up above roads in urban areas—showed how women’s clothing instilled fear among soldiers, who feared they would lose their masculine power if they passed underneath the clothes.

Images of Kachin nun Sister Rose Nu Tawng have been seen around the world, a symbol of compassion and courage. In the midst of a protest crackdown in Myitkyina in March, she was photographed on her knees with her arms outstretched, begging members of the junta’s armed forces to “shoot and kill [her]” instead of children. While the police paused the violence momentarily, they continued shooting at demonstrators only moments after the iconic photos were taken.

Myanmar nun Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng kneels in front of police officers to ask security forces to refrain from violence against children and residents amid anti-coup protests in Myitkyina, Kachin State on March 8 (Myitkyina News Journal)

In ethnic areas, women have long taken leadership positions through periods of war and hardship. In Karen State, for example, there are many villages where it is women who serve as village heads. Because of the civil war and ongoing military oppression, men have been worried that they would face torture or murder if they took on the role of village head, leaving women to do the job instead. Women throughout the region have had to protect their communities from violent attacks and negotiate with the military when they came to their villages. Being on the frontlines is not new for us.

These leadership positions continued through periods of temporary ceasefire, as women in ethnic areas addressed ongoing persecution and led efforts to recover lands and forests that were confiscated by the military. Women-led organisations across the ethnic states have also played central roles in civil society movements, creating new platforms and spaces for women throughout the country to be heard.

Demonstrators hold placards and wave banners with women’s longyi, a traditional garment worn in Myanmar, as a form of determent to security forces in Naypyitaw on March 12 (EPA-EFE)

Despite the prominent roles of women within emergent civic spaces, there had been little space for women to participate in official roles within government or the peace process prior to the coup. In the newly formed anti-coup National Unity Government, women make up around one-third of cabinet positions, a presence we have not seen in previous national administrations.

While Myanmar is a deeply conflicted society divided by ethnicity, gender, class, and generational differences, we see that the military’s power grab has united us: today we stand together against patriarchal and racist military control. Ethnic groups from the Karen to the Kachin to the Rohingya to the Burmese, from older generations to Gen Z, from women to men, from factory workers to doctors—we all stand against military oppression.

This revolution is for all of us, and in a new Myanmar, women, ethnic minorities, youth and the working class will take a leading role in shaping it. There is no going back, only forwards.

This revolution is ours, and we will defeat our common enemy. 

Esther Wah is an indigenous Karen woman. She works with ethnic communities across Myanmar on their right to protect the land and forests.


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