Profiles in Courage: Myanmar’s other female leaders

Hannah Ingber 

Aung San Suu Kyi will be in Norway this weekend to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to her in 1991 during her many years of imprisonment and house arrest by Myanmar’s military junta. When she is handed the award and delivers her acceptance speech, it will be a crowning moment for a dissident who continues to attract worldwide attention as a global symbol of resistance, courage and hope. And yet, while The Lady, as she is fondly known in Myanmar, dominates the headlines, there are many women in Myanmar who have worked in her shadow and taken similarly bold steps – often at great risk to themselves and their families – to work for a better, more just country.

The contributions of Aung San Suu Kyi and these many other women who have worked for justice prove all the more remarkable because of Myanmar’s dearth of women in leadership positions across virtually every sector; traditional cultures that have encouraged women to be inconspicuous wives who focus on taking care of the home and children; and the impact of decades of conflict and poverty on women’s wellbeing.

In the first part of this Special Report, GlobalPost’s Hanna Ingber returns to Myanmar, also known as Burma, where she lived for a year under the harsh rule of the military junta, and brings us the stories of women the world has not seen nor celebrated, but who have worked quietly and persistently toward change. 

YANGON, Myanmar – Zin Mar Aung’s friends told her not to get involved.

Everyone reminded her that if you joined the student protests breaking out in Yangon, you could face serious consequences. The army had beaten, arrested and even gunned down thousands of members of a previous generation of students during nationwide protests in 1988.

So when Zin Mar Aung along with hundreds of students decided to take to the streets in 1996, demanding the freedom to form student unions and release of jailed student activists, she knew she may have to pay a price. And she did.

In 1998, the military arrested her at the age of 22, and she endured 11 years in a filthy, bug-infested prison. But as soon as she was released in 2009, she began her pro-democracy work again, determined to do her part to resist the oppression of the military junta that had taken control of the country. It is work that she continues to this day.

At age of 36, she distributes relief to women and children who have fled fighting between the Myanmar army and Kachin rebels. She also works with other former female political prisoners to help them adjust to society. And she is learning how to properly monitor elections.

Zin Mar Aung is one of the many quiet voices of women who fought long and hard for justice in Myanmar.

And women, as many rights activists and political observers point out, have paid a disproportionately high price in this fight for democracy while they toiled under a half-century of rule by a male-dominated, repressive military. Consider:

*Human rights organizations say that rape by the military has been a persistent reality against ethnic women across different conflict areas for decades. Both Human Rights Watch and Kachin Women’s Association Thailand recently put out reports accusing the Myanmar army of ongoing abuses and rape in Kachin State, where fighting has raged since last June.

*Mostly women and children fill the internally displaced persons camps created to help those fleeing violence. The past year of fighting in Kachin State has displaced upwards of 75,000 people. Another 140,000 people who fled fighting in eastern Myanmar live in refugee camps in Thailand, and at least 446,000 internally displaced persons live in the eastern border region of Myanmar and Thailand.

*While school enrollment ratios for girls and boys have almost achieved parity, decades of economic mismanagement and high levels of poverty have made girls particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitation.

*The military government’s lack of investment in healthcare for decades has created a health crisis for Myanmar’s women. Some midwives in rural areas are responsible for overseeing 40 to 50 villages each. A third of the country’s women do not have access to free contraceptives, leading to unwanted and unhealthy pregnancies. In eastern Myanmar, preventable causes like postpartum hemorrhaging and unsafe abortion drive up the maternal mortality rate to 721 deaths per 100,000 live births. In conflicted and internally displaced persons areas, the rate spikes to 1000 to 1200 per 100,000 live births, according to Ibis Reproductive Health. 

Cultural conservatism in Myanmar also dissuades women from being empowered leaders.

“Because of the cultural context, women are always behind the man,” said Yin Yin Maw, the president of the Myanmar Council of Churches and a gender activist. If women try to move beyond the role of supporting their husband or father and become outspoken, she continued, they often face harassment and criticism.

Despite these difficulties, individual women in Myanmar have been fighting to be heard. And now, as the country embarks on an exciting time of transition, their voices are growing louder.

A slight change in women’s involvement has already been seen in parliament. Before the April 1 by-elections, the parliament’s 613-filled seats included only 18 women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, Myanmar still ranked 135 out of 143 in terms of global female political participation but the by-elections increased the number of women holding seats by a dozen.

And on June 16 when Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself was elected to parliament, receives her Nobel Prize, she is expected to say — as her son said in accepting the award on her behalf in 1991 and she has said so many times before — that the award is not just for her. She will likely say the Nobel Peace Prize is for all of the men, women and children who sacrificed so much in pursuit of a democratic Myanmar.

She is also likely to offer thanks to women like Zin Mar Aung who put their lives on the line for what they believed in. And to Naw She’ Wah, who worked on behalf of the many men and women infected with HIV who were shunned by society and left to die. And Htar Htar, who has worked on a campaign against sexual violence directed at women. They are the stories of three quietly courageous women who are doing their part to help Myanmar move closer to democracy.

ZIN MAR AUNG: Pushing for change after prison

In 1998, when Zin Mar Aung was 22, the military came for her. She was home with her family, and her sister told her to run, but Zin Mar Aung knew she had no choice.

“I cannot escape,” she said as she recently recounted the events. “And if I escaped, they would pressure my father and family.”

The military interrogated her for a week, keeping her awake without food or water for three days at a time, she said. Her crime? Passing out pro-democracy poems. Zin Mar Aung received a 28-year sentence.

At first, Zin Mar Aung stayed at Yangon’s Insein Prison and could not see her family and had to eat what tasted like bad rice mixed with sand. The military transferred her to Mandalay, and her father took monthly bus rides to visit her and bring her rice, curries and dried food.

“As a father I was worried about everything, everything,” Aung Kyi said as he sat in his living room in Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township, clutching a cheroot and remembering his eldest daughter’s imprisonment. In a case across the room was a photograph of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama presenting Zin Mar Aung with the 2012 International Women of Courage Award.

Zin Mar Aung said she spent most of her time in prison in solitary confinement. She slept on a wooden floor, without a mattress or pillow. She had no electricity; in the winter, she felt freezing cold, and in the summer, blisteringly hot. Tiny bugs covered the floor, and she would wake in the night to find them crawling through her hair.

“The Burmese prisons are very famous for their bugs,” she said matter-of-factly.

For the first seven years she was not allowed to read books or write. She spent her time reciting Buddhist discourses, counting prayer beads and singing student revolutionary songs.

Eleven years into her sentence, the military let Zin Mar Aung free. And immediately, she returned to her work as a democracy activist.

She again faced criticism from friends who told her to be careful, but this time her family fully understood.

“I loved her to continue to do for my country,” said her father, who has turned a room attached to his house into a classroom filled with students who need extra tutoring. “She is my daughter, but I did not own her – our country owns her.”

Before returning to the classroom, Aung Kyi said he tells his students about Zin Mar Aung’s courage and time in prison. “All my pupils are also proud of my eldest daughter.”

NAW SHE’ WAH: Overcoming stigma

Thida Oo says her late husband was a pianist and guitarist and she a singer, and they performed together on television. She knew her husband carried the AIDS virus for years, but the couple never used protection because she did not know she could reduce the risk of transmission.

“We have lack of education, lack of awareness,” Thida Oo says, describing life in Yangon a decade ago.

“Only know, love her husband,” chimes in Naw She’ Wah, the chairwoman of Myanmar Positive Women Network.

“Love too much,” Thida Oo adds.

In an effort to portray the country and government in a positive light, the junta that ruled Myanmar for a half century suppressed knowledge about many things – including HIV. The lack of information put lives at risk and fueled stigma and discrimination.

Naw She’ Wah, who sits with her legs folded to the side, her pink toenails pointing out from under her blue longyi, explains that a few years ago there was so much discrimination in Myanmar against those with HIV/AIDS that many would not disclose their status. As more people gained knowledge about the infection and access to treatment, more have come forward.

She reaches out her long, thin arm covered in a light layer of thanaka or skin cream over to Hnin Thandar Win, sitting on the floor next to her. “In the beginning,” Naw She’ Wah says, “she didn’t want to go anywhere. Now she goes everywhere!”

“Me too,” Naw She’ Wah, continues. “I didn’t want to go anywhere.”

“Me too,” says Thida Oo.

“At that time,” Hnin Thandar Win says, tears swelling in her eyes, “I thought I would die. I locked my room and didn’t want to come out.”

The past government arrested AIDS activists, blocked humanitarian activities and actively discriminated against those infected. Naw She’ Wah worked around the government. She focused on creating a community of those with AIDS and encouraging each member to disclose her status and regain control over her life.

Naw She’ Wah, who has built this network to 3,600 members, says her husband passed away from AIDS in 1999, leaving her with two toddlers and parents-in-law who blamed her for their son’s death. Her parents-in-law took away her husband’s property and tried to take the children, she says. She gave up the land but refused to hand over her toddlers.

“These are my children,” she says, her voice becoming firm as she recounts the story. “Don’t try to separate [me from] my children.”

Naw She’ Wah kept her children and joined a non-governmental organization working on AIDS in Shan State, where she lived.

“When I got in touch with the community, [I realized] there are a lot of people the same as me,” she says.

But facing discrimination there, she moved to Yangon to start anew. By 2008 she helped form the Myanmar Positive Women Network.

After she talks about herself, she pushes the focus back to the other women sitting around the bamboo matt. “Talk to them,” she says. “They all have interesting stories.” In Naw She’ Wah’s community, all the women have voices that deserve to be heard.

HTAR HTAR: Testing the new Myanmar

When Htar Htar was 10, as she rode a local bus with her mother and sister, a conductor stood behind her and, pretending to help her balance, slowly molested her.

“It was the most terrifying experience for me in my whole life. I was so young; I didn’t know what was happening,” Htar Htar said years later.

For the next 30 years Htar Htar did not tell anyone what happened to her. But over the years, she thought back to that day on the bus as her life’s most disturbing moment.

In 2011, the political situation in Myanmar quickly began to change. Suddenly, Htar Htar – a fashionable woman with thick brown hair flowing down her back and a string of bangles on her wrist – felt able and willing to revisit her experience on the bus. As the country opened, she decided to be open about her past. And as a political space to protest appeared, she wanted to take part.

Htar Htar and her friends in an informal women’s group wanted to test the new Myanmar and fight for a cause, but they didn’t know how.

“When we were very young we heard about ‘campaign,’ but we didn’t know what it is,” she continued. In the women’s minds, the word conjured up an image of someone standing in a big hall, giving a speech. They decided to give it a try.

The group decided to organize a campaign against sexual harassment on buses. In addition to Htar Htar, many women and girls had personal stories of fondling, rubbing or indecent “poking” on public buses in Yangon, she said.

A lack of rule of law, fear of speaking up, culture of shame and lack of virtually any sex or sexuality education has created a situation in which sexual harassment on buses is common, and women and girls do not assert themselves.

“It is shameful to be assaulted,” Htar Htar said. “If you respond, more people will know – double shame.”

But as Myanmar opens up, gender activists like Htar Htar are looking deeply at the abuses in their society and mobilizing people to take action.

Htar Htar’s group formed an action committee and planned their campaign: they would use volunteers to hand out tens of thousands of whistles and information sheets to women on buses, explaining that if they faced sexual harassment they should blow the whistle.

The launch day arrived, and 366 volunteers gathered early (some backed out, presumably because they feared arrest). Everyone was on edge.

“On the first day we were so…” – Htar Htar put her clasped hands over her heart – “…nervous.”

Htar Htar felt responsible for her volunteers and feared something could happen to them.

“I couldn’t forget that morning. We were like going for battle!” she said, her eyes opening wide as she remembered the feeling of anticipation. “Everybody was silent.”

The volunteers dispersed and when there were no signs of problems, the group knew they had pulled it off. When the group recollected two hours later, the women felt overwhelmed with joy, Htar Htar said. “Almost crying.”

The volunteers now gather regularly to pass out whistles and continue their campaign.

Htar Htar has realized that activism is not easy; it has led to a strain on her marriage and finances. But she has tasted the sense of joy and triumph that comes with mobilizing a community to work for change, and she isn’t going back.