On November 8th 2020, the results were in. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won the general elections in Myanmar by a significant margin, on January 30th 2021, after a series of alleged voter fraud and irregularities made by the opposition, military powers promised to abide by the constitution and respect the democratic outcome of the elections. On February 1st, 2021, the Myanmar military led by Min Aung Hlaing overthrew the NLD and declared a state of emergency, detaining Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other civilian leaders. After that, total blackout.

The Burmese military blocked all forms of social media and shut down the internet in an attempt to contain and restrict the flow of information. Censorship and military-conducted violence were used to stop anti-coup protests. The use of deadly force against innocent civilians, in addition to internet censorship, is an infringement of freedom, international human right norms and democracy. But what about other Burmese groups in society, who have suffered for decades from military violence, exclusion and human rights breaches? What are the implications of the coup d’état for ethnic minorities and women?

Anti-coup protest signs in Taunggyi, Myanmar. 2021

The military history of Myanmar

The state of Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has had a complicated political history characterized by military coups, violent protests and fragile democracy. After gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the ‘Union of Burma’ struggled to establish a stable democracy as ethnic, political and ideological tensions divided the state. Whilst ethnic minorities demanded independence or the establishment of a federalist system, communist groups protested for the replacement of democracy. After escalating rebellion and insurgency between these groups, the Burmese military, founded as the Tatmadaw, took over the country in a coup in 1962. Since then, the legacy of cohesive military rule and authoritarianism has transcended throughout time.

The military regime lasted from 1962 to 1977, and continued from 1988 to 2011. In 1974, the military developed a stratocracy: a single-party system, known as the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) led by Ne Win. However, the BSPP’s new isolationist and economic policies caused a significant economic decline, leading to government corruption, food shortages and transition into a black-market economy. This triggered mass pro-democracy movements throughout the country, calling for an end to the military regime.

 In 1988, thousands of protestors were killed in an attempt to suppress pro-democracy movements. Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence during the protests as a symbol of leadership, human rights and democracy. Following on, the military prevailed and abolished Ne Win’s socialist party in another military coup and regained all power and authority. Additionally, Suu Kyi was detained in prison and the state of Burma officially became known as Myanmar.

Following the 2010 general elections, and the new 2008 constitution to develop a multi-party democratic system, the military regime was dissolved. Suu Kyi was also freed in 2010, allowing her to succeed in the 2015 general elections and become de-facto leader of Myanmar. Whilst this may initially be perceived as a transition to democracy, the development of a new political system was engineered by the military to covertly guard their own interests. The politicisation of the military has given them a dominating role and ubiquitous role in politics as they remain in full control of all democratic and political processes in Myanmar.

The NLD’s victory in the 2020 elections was widely perceived as a measure of hope to end military dominance in Myanmar. For the majority of Burmese civilians, this military coup is an outright violation of their freedom and democratic rights, but it is also a nostalgic souvenir of the dark ages. However, certain groups in Myanmar experience a lack of freedom regardless of the leaders of the state. For many decades, women experienced discrimination and systemic exclusion from society and politics due to gender norms and their ethnicity.

Gender norms and the exclusion of women in politics

Gender norms in Myanmar mainstream society are based on traditional and conservative values. Women are bound to domestic labour whilst men are perceived as leaders, dominating political and military positions of power. The widespread support for preserving traditional cultural values amongst the Burmese population fuels and strengthens gender norms, which has become an obstacle for women in politics.

Women are underrepresented in government and only occupy 11% of seats in parliament. Women are heavily discouraged from working in politics as the 2008 constitution enforced measures preventing them from achieving high ministerial and governmental positions. Moreover, only 1.2% of women have been appointed a position in the military, which is evidently dominated by men in power. The ever-present control of the governing patriarchal military regime imposes barriers on the opportunities for women in politics. This not only limits their inclusion in politics, but additionally reinforces systemic gender inequalities.

Feminist activism and movements have been on the rise over the past 10 years. Policy changes, including the establishment of the ‘National Strategic Action Plan for the Advancement of Women’ try to prevent violence against women. Nevertheless, gendered violence and inequality persist as women in Myanmar face sexual harassment and human rights abuses on a daily basis, in both conflict and post-conflict areas.

The governing patriarchy has stopped the successful transition to democracy and maintains the systemic exclusion of women in politics. Despite Suu Kyi being the legitimate head of state, elitist actors fail to recognise the existing gender inequalities and political exclusion in Myanmar. Currently, democracy in Myanmar is a façade, as the military controls and dictates all political decisions and events. There is widespread fear amongst Burmese women that the coup would reverse any policy changes that were achieved, and will exacerbate violence directed towards them.

Women at the forefront of the protests doing the three-finger salute- a symbol of resistance.

The treatment of the Rohingya and intersectional feminism

Rohingya women do not have the same rights as other women in Myanmar, or policies that protect them, due to their ethnicity and religion. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading scholar in intersectional feminism describes intersectionality as an idea that conceptualizes the relations between race, religion, gender. Specifically, how these factors create systems of oppression in society and construct power hierarchies and gender inequalities. It is important to understand how religion and ethnicity were determining factors in the abominable persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Even though men suffer more from combat-related injuries, women and girls are the most vulnerable group in that population.

The Rohingya crisis gained international awareness during the 2015 refugee crisis, but ethnic and religious persecution towards them can be traced back to 1962. In that era, the military government developed discriminatory policies and abuse to create ethnic disparities between the majority Bamar Buddhist group and Muslim minorities, including the Rohingya. Further laws were developed to discriminate against the Rohingya population, notably by stripping them from their Burmese nationality in 1982, reshaping the Rohingya as a stateless nation. In our current epoch, the Rohingya population have been victims of perpetuate state-conducted abuse threatening their security and human rights.

Rohingya women are the most marginalised and vulnerable group in the Rohingya population. The lack of economic and political opportunities that they can access puts them at risk of being involved in human trafficking. Additionally, Rohingya women have been sold, and forced into marriage and childbearing practices in foreign countries. Rohingya women and girls are being objectified to benefit corporations and organisations making a profit from human capital.

The bodies of Rohingya women are being dangerously exploited by the Myanmar army for war purposes. Military groups frequently employ large-scale acts of sexual violence, rape and harassment as a tactic to terrorize, coerce and punish the civilian population. The use of rape and sexual violence is used as a weapon by the military to reinforce gender and ethnic inequalities to maintain their own sense of superiority vis-a-vis their own race and gender. This demonstrates how militarization and warfare tactics are deeply gendered to maintain power and ethnic hierarchies.

Since 2017, torture, murder and sexual harassment effectuated by the military caused the displacement of more than 730,000 Rohingya in neighboring Bangladesh. Whilst this is military-conducted violence, Suu Kyi, has disregarded these acts as being fake news. By pacifying and defending the military’s acts towards ethnic minorities and women, Suu Kyi is neglecting the genocidal intent of the military’s violence. This not only manifests the frailness and flaws of their democracy, but it reveals the military’s authority in politics. Regardless of the party in power, the military will always have absolute monopoly.

The return of the authoritarian military regime signifies that abuse directed towards women and ethnic minorities are unlikely to cease. In addition, the military will perpetrate acts of violence towards anti-coup protests. The introduction of a new draconian cybersecurity bill will give authorities full control over information being shared on the internet in Myanmar, and give them legislative power to arrest anyone defying the military junta. They want to turn internet censorship into a permanent political tool to weaken protestors and suppress freedom of online press.

The international community condemns the coup and discuss the possibility of imposing sanctions as an operation to stop military abuses. However, the military persisted under sanctions imposed after previous coup’s and from the Rohingya crisis.  It is difficult to predict the events that will unveil following the coup. Nevertheless, if protests persevere and the international community can employ a method to help Burmese civilians reclaim their rights, there is always hope that civilians will prevail. We have to continue reading on the topic, and keep informed of any changes in events. Whether it be the protests, women’s rights or the treatment of the Rohingya, we need to raise awareness on the events happening in Myanmar.


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