Myanmar’s Coup Is Devastating for Women
The junta’s patriarchal oppression will cost more lives in Myanmar—unless the international community acts now.
The Myanmar military’s forceful takeover of the civilian government on Feb. 1, and its deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters who have marched in the streets ever since, are a dangerous setback for democracy and the rule of law in the country. But they’re especially devastating for women.
The coup, which ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, not only threatens to reverse the progress made over the past decade to ensure that women in Myanmar have more opportunities, power, and influence in society but also places an unaccountable military with a history of gender-based violence in control of every aspect of government. Beyond the direct threat this poses to women’s physical safety, this rule—if left unchecked—will reinvigorate Myanmar’s long history of patriarchal oppression.
Before the coup, things were finally looking up for women in Myanmar. By finding new openings within Myanmar’s nascent and quasi-democratic institutions, women’s civil society organizations, including the Gender Equality Network and Women’s League of Burma, had begun to dismantle the traditional social norms and stereotypes that impeded gender equality in the country. Their campaigns included leadership workshops, grassroots advocacy to change gender stereotypes and perceptions, and work within political parties to promote and elect women. These efforts were bolstered by a cadre of women, such as Member of Parliament Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, who moved from women’s civil society organizations into roles as elected officials. In turn, women’s rights advocates had started to weave important ideas about women’s rights and empowerment into the political, economic, and cultural fabric of society.
This work was bearing fruit, as the percentage of women in leadership positions steadily increased. In the November 2020 elections, women accounted for 17 percent of elected parliamentarians at all levels of government, an increase of 4 percentage points from the 2015 elections and 12 percentage points from the 2011 elections. And even though Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t a staunch supporter of women’s or ethnic rights, Myanmar had a female head of state. In 2018, Myanmar ranked 148th in the world on the gender inequality index, and in 2019, it had risen to 118th. Women’s progress was slow and piecemeal, but steady, especially given the ingrained sexism of the previous junta.
The progress will come to a halt post-coup, since the institutional and societal changes necessary to dismantle pervasive gender discrimination will never take place under military rule. Simply put, the Myanmar military is a patriarchal political actor that views women as, at best, in need of protection, and, at worst, incapable of exercising decision-making power.
This gender bias is evident in the puppet government installed after the coup. The junta has replaced national-level politicians, including ministers and Supreme Court justices, as well as regional and local officials. Almost every official appointed to replace the deposed government is male. For example, the 16-member State Administrative Council formed by the military to govern Myanmar following the coup, includes only one woman, Daw Aye Nu Sein, a member of the Arakan National Party who was a fierce critic of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. And this week, the military “celebrated” International Women’s Day by highlighting the inclusion of the wives of State Administrative Council members in official events—a substitute for the meaningful participation of women in political life.
Indeed, since military rule has been the norm—rather than the exception—in Myanmar over the last half-century, history tells us where the country might be headed. From 1962 to 2011, when Myanmar was controlled by a military junta, women were marginalized in society, formally and informally excluded from positions of power, and did not receive the same educational and economic opportunities as men.
Under decades of military rule, with its culture of militarization and hypermasculinity, social norms and roles dictated that women and girls should take charge of the household, family, and other caretaking responsibilities. Men were considered natural leaders and women suitable only for support roles and in need of male protection. This patriarchal mindset is stated clearly in the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which provides, for example, that certain jobs “are suitable for men only” and repeatedly refers to women as mothers, which United Nations human rights specialists say is “reinforcing gender stereotypes.”
During the junta’s prior 50-year reign, the government’s failure to invest in Myanmar’s social and economic infrastructure placed a heavy burden on women, particularly those living in rural and ethnic minority areas, and women’s perspectives were rarely considered. To use one metric, the budgetary allocation for health and education ranged from 1 to 3 percent of gross domestic product during that period, compared to 20 to 30 percent devoted to the military. This underinvestment in society directly harmed women, resulting in a lack of opportunities and access to public services, as well as high maternal and infant mortality rates.
Nowhere was women’s marginalization more prevalent than the military itself, which until 2014 allowed women to enter the military only in support roles, such as secretaries and nurses. As a result, female members of the military can’t exercise decision-making authority, and many lack the appropriate experience to serve in senior positions. The military, according to the 2008 constitution, may directly appoint 25 percent of the members of parliament, and following the 2015 elections, the military selected only four women to fill its hundreds of national, state, and regional direct appointments. The constitution also allows the military other key appointments, including the heads of three powerful ministries, and yet no such appointees have ever been women.
In a recent interview about the coup, May Sabe Phyu, a prominent women’s rights activist from Myanmar, said it best: “Women’s rights have never been part of the military agenda. They may pretend they care, but it’s all lies. In their view, the role of women is to preserve culture and religion.”
But the military coup does not just signal a backsliding of women’s rights and their role in society; it is also an immediate and direct threat to the physical safety of women. Studies have long shown that higher rates of gender inequality correlate with an increased risk of violence against women. In Myanmar in particular, U.N. human rights experts have found that “the extent of gender inequality in Myanmar makes it especially prone to sexual and gender-based violence.” The civilian government and women’s rights groups had been working for years to craft a comprehensive national law to protect women from this violence and were edging toward a final, if imperfect, draft. But with the military back in power, the chances of passing an even imperfect law is next to impossible, and if done, will be superficial and performative.
In fact, gender-based violence has been a hallmark of the military’s operations for decades, and there have been credible reports of sexual assault, rape, and killing of women throughout ethnic minority communities. Those led the U.N.’s independent fact-finding mission for Myanmar to find in August 2019 that sexual violence at the hands of the military was “part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorise and punish a civilian population.” The military has now been listed by the U.N. secretary-general as a party “credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape or other forms of sexual violence.”
There is also a direct link between these acts of gender-based violence and militarized areas in Myanmar more generally. Sexual violence, including against girls as young as 14, is common in areas with military bases and camps, as well as in militarized mining areas, which are largely in ethnic minority states. As a result, U.N. human rights experts have concluded that women and girls “are acutely vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence in militarized and conflict-prone areas of northern Myanmar.” At present, with the military usurpation of power, as well as with the massive deployment of security forces to crack down on the ongoing civil disobedience movement, there is no doubt that this total militarization of the country poses serious risks to women. In fact, the same military divisions that have been implicated in acts of gender-based violence in ethnic minority states have been deployed to cities to suppress protests.
Indeed, women protesters are already facing targeted violence by security forces. According to one estimate, women—both young and old, from garment workers to nuns—make up about 60 percent of front-line protest leaders. The first protest fatality was Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, a 20-year-old woman shot in the head by police during a peaceful protest in Naypyidaw. And so far, more than 600 women have been arrested—and, as the U.N. has noted, they are now facing sexual harassment and violence. Women’s civil society groups have continually worked to highlight gender-based violence amid the protests to the international community, including to bodies such as the U.N. Security Council.
Fueling these risks is the fact that gender-based violence committed by the military has historically been met with total impunity in Myanmar. Such violence is enabled by structural barriers to accountability, such as a constitutional immunity guarantee and no civilian oversight of the military, as well as the lack of a comprehensive and modern law on gender-based violence. Even before the coup, Myanmar women couldn’t count on their state institutions to hold perpetrators accountable. Now, they’re in even graver danger, and international accountability measures—something women from ethnic minority communities have long called for—may be the only hope.
Right now, there are three interrelated international accountability processes that have the potential to address sexual and gender-based violence in Myanmar, but they each have limitations. All arose from concerns about Myanmar’s human rights abuses, and particularly the Rohingya genocide. The first is an ongoing genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). There’s also an investigation into Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Finally, there is the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), which was created by the U.N. Human Rights Council to build criminal cases for international crimes committed in Myanmar since 2011, which includes crimes committed in the context of the coup.
While these are important steps, without more, they cannot bring the accountability that women seek. First, the ICJ and ICC, as a result of various jurisdictional limits, are only focused on the case of the Rohingya. And while the pursuit of accountability for the Rohingya is crucial, these efforts cannot bring justice for all the various ethnic minority groups who have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the military. Second, while the IIMM is engaged in important case-building work around crimes committed against all ethnic minority groups, there may not be available and willing courts—whether domestic or international—to actually take these cases forward.
In order to address these gaps, the international community must undertake more concerted action, such as a referral for international crimes to the ICC by the U.N. Security Council, as was done for Sudan and Libya. Another option is the creation of an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute crimes against humanity, including those occurring in the context of current protests, war crimes, and genocide, as was done for, among other countries, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone. Demonstrating to the military that its actions will have consequences, by breaking the cycle of impunity, must be a priority.
A militarized Myanmar is a threat for everyone, but it is a particular threat to women. As long as a military government is in place, women’s rights, empowerment, and safety are sure to be ignored, and women will fall behind yet again. Such a dangerous reversion harms everyone in Myanmar, as the country can never fulfill its potential as a stable, peaceful, and economically productive member of the international community without gender equality.
Efforts must be made right now to center women, and gender equality, in building the future of Myanmar. As women are on the front lines every day, the international community needs to help ensure that they aren’t just the face of the revolution, but that they are also the architects of their own future. Women’s rights advocates have sounded the alarm bells loudly and clearly—as May Sabe Phyu has warned: “If we don’t win this time, they will win forever.”
Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center.