Power, Thy Name Could Be Woman

YANGON, Myanmar – This is a nation that has maintained a burning love affair with a woman for nearly three decades now, but when it comes to having other females in powerful positions, Myanmar seems to suddenly turn cold.

Yet its peoples’ unabashed adulation of Aung San Suu Kyi may actually have been helping change attitudes here towards women, even if such progress is still painfully slow.

For one, the Nobel Peace laureate has inspired other Myanmar women to step up and take on public roles. For another, her being at the helm of the leading opposition party for many years now seems to have made many of this country’s men a little less surprised whenever they see a woman wielding authority.

The National League of Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi has fielded the highest number of female candidates among the political parties in Myanmar’s 2015 elections. (Photo: Shinta Maharani)

Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership role in Myanmar politics inspires more women to participate in the country’s public affairs. (Photo: Shinta Maharani)

National League for Democracy (NLD) candidate Phyu Phyu Thin campaigns in Mingala Taungnyunt Township, Yangon, Myanmar. “Women are prepared to lead,” she said during an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). (Photo: Shinta Maharani)

The Lady’s Makeover


YANGON, Myanmar -- PEOPLE LINE up on the roadside whenever they hear she is coming and scream once she appears, giant smiles breaking across their thanaka-smeared faces. In a country where women usually stay in the shadows, 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi is a star – or maybe even more than that.  Once, she was content to write books and care for her family in faraway Oxford. But in the last three decades, Suu Kyi has transformed from a scholarly wife and mother who liked to play Scrabble to a globally recognised icon of democracy who has stood firm in the face of soldiers armed to the teeth.

When she returned to Myanmar (then still called Burma) in 1988 to look after her ill mother, she probably had neither inkling nor desire to participate in her homeland’s politics. But pro-democracy activists apparently recognised that she could play a big part in bringing change to Myanmar, then under the iron grip of the military junta.  She ended up heeding their wishes, staying in this country for what turned out to be years and years. In the meantime, oceans and continents away, her sons grew up without their mother and her husband eventually died of cancer without a wife by his bedside.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s revered war hero Aung San, who was assassinated during the nation’s infancy. No doubt, it was initially that fact that had Myanmar’s people gravitating towards her, almost by instinct, when she made her homecoming. But while her being her father’s daughter remains a vital reason why people look up to her now, it is also because she has been transformed by the public as The Lady whose grace and commitment to peace will help them achieve the freedom they have long desired.

“I see Suu Kyi not as a woman,” says Hlime Thit In Wai, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine. “She is a political leader.”

He also described her as a “national hero” because “she sacrificed for almost 30 years”. 

Unfit to lead

The military authorities, of course, had attempted to portray her in less flattering light, using to their advantage  the traditional image of women in Myanmar as docile beings who would and should never be above men. In her 2004 book Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear, Australian medical anthropologist Monique Skidmore writes that the most common way Suu Kyi is presented as  being “unfit to participate in the political process in Burma…is as a woman”, with gender stereotypes “exaggerated in State propaganda to forever exclude women from Burmese political life”.

The dismissive characterisation of Suu Kyi as just a woman and therefore unsuitable and unqualified for any political role was sustained by the state especially during the mid-1990s. Skidmore says that another target of such a depiction was the head of the New York-based Burma Project, Maureen Aung Thwin. The junta categorised both Suu Kyi and Maureen Aung Thwin by their “feminine nature”, says Skidmore, which the authorities implied as being “inherently duplicitous and untrustworthy”.  This characterisation of both women apparently appeared in the state-run media (Skidmore cites the New Light of Myanmar as one example), which even went on to depict Suu Kyi and Maureen Aung Thwin as using their “’womanly wiles’ to gain their objectives, objectives driven by greed, lust, and pride”.

Suu Kyi’s ties to the West – her having a British husband and her foreign education, among other things – were also used against her by the junta in its attempt to diminish her potential to have a role in Myanmar’s politics. Moreover, Skidmore reads at least one portrayal of her as a puppet of the West, by the New Light of Myanmar, as having sexual undertones. In a 1996 piece, the paper had called Suu Kyi “a traitor puppet who is blatantly betraying the national cause and dancing to the delight of neo-colonialists Leik and Kan”. The latter are references to the British and U.S. governments, says Skidmore, who sees the dance of the puppet as being “sexually suggestive, implying that Aung San Suu Kyi prostitutes herself before the ‘Leik-Kan’ secret alliance”.

Political analysts Claudia Derichs and Mark R. Thompson have also noted how the state-owned press used to like referring to Suu Kyi as “Mrs. Michael Aris” and “Ma Suu Kyi”, which means “Little Sister Suu Kyi”. According to the academics, these references signified “a degradation of status” for Suu Kyi.

Redefining “woman”

But the junta obviously failed in their mission. Instead, the Myanmar public took Suu Kyi’s being a woman in a positive manner, with her “gendered attributes” successfully used by the opposition movement “to justify her fitness to rule”, writes Skidmore. Her regal and determined demeanor, softened by the ever-present flowers in her hair, thus earned her the monicker “The Lady”; her self-sacrifice was acknowledged, leading to her transformation into “Mother Suu”. Respect is inherent in both labels, but in Suu Kyi’s case power emanates from them as well.

It is probably the mother image that is appealing to some detained activists currently leading a hunger strike in Tharawaddy Prison. According to a November 16 report by DVB News, the jailed activists have been refusing food to push for the unconditional release of all of the country’s political prisoners since late October.

Three of the hunger strikers have since landed in hospital, but are still turning away offers of food. Shortly after Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide in the November 8 elections, though, two of the hospitalised leaders of the protest -- both men -- received a visit from Win Htein of the NLD; he had a message for them from Daw Suu Kyi.

DVB reported one of the hunger strikers as saying later: “I take it that the NLD is advising us what is appropriate to do at the given time and circumstance, and we must seriously consider (Suu Kyi’s) words.”

During the run up to the 2015 elections, some of the privately owned media also made sure to run stories on the women vying for seats in the country’s legislature. With women making up just 13 percent of those contesting seats for parliament, perhaps the media just wanted to do their part in making the playing field a bit more even. Kumudra Journal’s political editor Nan Lwin confessed, however, that she wanted “to see more women in parliament”. DVB Multimedia Group Myanmar Bureau Chief Toe Zaw Latt, for his part, observed that there are few women in politics, which he indicated is not quite right since their participation is “very important”.

The current parliament, which finishes its term in March 2016, has females in only 4.6 percent of the seats. As of this writing, women had already clinched about 16 percent of the officially declared seats in the next legislature. Indications are that is largely because of the strong showing of the National League of Democracy (NLD) that has Suu Kyi as its head and which fielded the highest number of female candidates among the political parties.

Based on Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data, the current legislature has Myanmar ranking 170th among 189 surveyed countries when it comes to women’s representation in lower or single national parliaments. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar shares with Thailand the distinction of women having the smallest percentage of elected legislative seats. (Brunei has only appointees in its female-free legislature). Timor Leste has the biggest proportion of women in parliament (38 percent), followed by the Philippines (27 percent), and Laos (25 percent).

Women make up about 52 percent of Myanmar’s population of 52 million. DVB’s Toe believes having women participate more in the country’s politics is crucial if it is to solve its “many problems”. That is why, he said, giving female candidates space in media is important. He said that DVB has run stories on women candidates and activists alike, and that its election debate program featured women, too.


Women woes

It may please Toe and Kumudra’s Nan to hear that May Sabe Phyu, head of the nongovernment organisation Gender Equality Network (GEN), thinks that compared to the past, media coverage of the women candidates in the 2015 elections was much better. A cursory look at what Myanmar media were offering during the campaign period also indicates that at the very least, several of the pieces on women in politics went beyond the usual narration of the candidates’ resumes. Instead, they tackled broader and deeper issues, such as why the parties were having a hard time finding women to run for elections. A 24 October Irrawaddy story on a fundraising activity for women candidates even went on to discuss the obstacles – among them verbal attacks and being labeled promiscuous simply because they were traveling with men -- they faced on the campaign trail.

One particular episode of DVB’s 15-minute election debate program also gave hints on why Myanmar women in positions of authority are still hard to come by. A tri-cornered debate, it had as participants NLD MP Phyu Phyu Thin, activist and All Burma Federation of Students Unions’ head of ethnic student affairs Nandar Sint Aung, and Buddhist nun Kate Than Ya. Kate said that according to Buddhist law, nuns are not allowed to consider themselves as equal to monks. Nandar, meanwhile, said because women have a different biological make-up from men, they should not expect to be treated like men would. That included, he said, being paid the same amount as men for the same kind of work.

“In our culture, there is a belief that women are only supposed to do chores at home,” said MP Phyu, who was running for re-election in the November polls. “As a woman, I think there is still some discrimination.”

“Women are prepared to lead,” she also said during the DVB show, “but the Myanmar parliament is not ready for female leadership at this time.”

The question was how many of those who watched the show agreed with Kate and Nandar and how many sympathised with Phyu. For all anyone knew, the media’s attempts to help more women get elected into office could have been totally lost to voters.

As it is, the legislature is not the only place in Myanmar that has had trouble having women in power. The United Nations Development Programme is among those that have taken notice that while women make up about half of the staff across the country’s state administrative organisations and ministries, most of them occupy lower-level positions.

Thin Lei Win, chief correspondent at the online publication Myanmar Now, pointed out as well that even in Myanmar’s media institutions, the “decision-making level…(is) significantly male-dominated.” She added that in instances where women are media bosses, it is because they founded the organisation or are children of the company owner.


Mothers and leaders

“Women are regarded quite well in Myanmar,” Win Win Tint, managing director of the family-owned Myanmar retail giant City Mart Holdings, said in an October 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We put high importance on the mother figure. But then we are not really expected to be in leadership positions just yet.”

The 39-year-old executive was recently included in Fortune magazine’s list of 50 power businesswomen in Asia. She said in her Wall Street Journal interview: “Of course, we have very prominent women leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, but generally women don’t stay in front of their husbands or male colleagues. They more often choose a supporting role. They just don’t see the fact that they can become somebody more important.”

But the very dominant presence of Daw Suu Kyi in Myanmar politics – or to be exact, in modern Myanmar society and psyche -- is apparently helping several women across this country to realise their potential beyond the home, their traditional domain. For example, a 2014 study on women’s participation in Myanmar’s subnational governance, done by think tank Myanmar Research Development Institute (MDRI), reveals that those who took part in focus group discussions in Kayin State in the country’s east “believed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s prominent leadership position and behavior was an inspiration for female village heads” there.

At one point, Yangon regional lawmaker Nyo Nyo Thin was also among Suu Kyi’s fans. Now, though, she seems at odds with NLD, if not with Suu Kyi herself, having been dropped from NLD’s list of those it was considering to add to its roster of candidates for the 2015 polls. As a result, the 48-year-old MP ran as an independent candidate for the Lower House. (She eventually lost.)

Speaking with some foreign journalists in Yangon less than a week before the elections, Nyo admitted that when she was a student activist, she had looked up to the NLD leader. But she followed that up with a remark tinged with sarcasm, saying that when it comes to women’s rights, she “needs to push” Daw Suu Kyi. Nyo didn’t elaborate further, but it is a remark that is not a surprising reference to someone who is known, even among her admirers, for her stubbornness. Which, of course, hasn’t lessened her appeal among the Myanmar public, so much so that the grandmother of two’s picture can be found not only on magazine covers and the front pages of newspapers, but also on T-shirts, key chains, bags, and a whole lot of other bits and pieces that sell briskly because they bear her image.


The quota question

One of the things Suu Kyi has been on loggerheads with women’s rights activists is over having a specified minimum number of females in the legislature. Her opposition to any government-mandated quota concerning the participation of women in Myanmar politics is also thought to include having the parties’ candidates lists follow a set minimum for women.

GEN’s May echoed other women’s rights activists in saying that a quota system that would mandate a minimum proportion of women in parliament is essential to achieve gender equality. But a speech Suu Kyi gave at the Women’s Forum Myanmar in December 2014 may help explain why she does not support the imposition of quotas so that women will have a higher governance participation rate.

“We need more women involved in politics, but involved in the right way,” said Suu Kyi at the forum. “It is not enough just to be in politics to be a figure, a symbol of strength of women. We need to be in politics in order to make the changes that are necessary. “

“It’s not a matter of how many ministers we have in the government who are women and how many MPs,” she said. “It is a matter of how effective these women are, whether in government, whether in business, or whether in CSOs, NGOs, and so on. How effective we can be depends on how fairly and how correctly we can judge the needs of our time, the needs of our country, the needs of our people.”

For sure, the presence of women in the legislature can help highlight and prod actions on issues such as sexual abuse and domestic violence, which in Myanmar and most other places usually have females as the victims. The MDRI study also pointed to gender differences in governance preferences. Women, it said, focused more on “health care, sanitation, children’s education, day-to-day livelihood and family income needs, and micro-finance”. By comparison, men had “greater interest in more general and/or abstract political concepts such as power and constitution, business, and physical infrastructure such as roads and electricity”. The study later cited MP Nyo Nyo Thin’s experience in the Yangon Region Parliament, where she said her male colleagues focused “heavily on building roads, and (were) unwilling to divert funds away from this to issues that women in Parliament (prioritised), such as education, health, and caring for old people and children”.

Notwithstanding its head’s allergy to a quota system on women’s participation in parliament, NLD has tried to ensure that its stable of candidates for the legislature would always include women. During the 2012 by-elections, women made up 30 percent of its candidates, one of them being Suu Kyi. The next year, NLD formally set its criteria for choosing candidates, among them party loyalty and political ability. In addition, NLD gave priority to women, youth, and ethnic minorities.

When time came to pick its candidates for the 2015 elections, NLD was expected to again have women making up at least 30 percent of its bets. It ended up having 168 female candidates, the biggest number among the political parties (the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party or USDP had less than half that, fielding only 72). But they made up only 15 percent of NLD’s candidates, leading to some criticism even from its supporters.

At a press conference held on yet another hot day in Yangon before the polls, a visibly tired Suu Kyi herself said that she was “unhappy” that NLD could not have more women to contest seats in parliament. She also said that it was “difficult to find women with the right qualifications, which means (we) need to do a lot more” to ensure women’s involvement in politics.


The party, not the person?

Last August, Irrawaddy had also wondered why Myanmar’s political parties, not just NLD, seemed to be having trouble fulfilling previous promises to achieve gender parity in their selection of candidates. It reported that practically every party was claiming a sheer lack of “qualified” women to run for office. That included NLD, although Irrawaddy said Central committee member Nan Khin Htwe Myint also reasoned that women were “already overwhelmed with responsibilities such as taking care of the kitchen and ‘changing the flowers for Buddha’.” Thus, Nan told Irrawaddy, “women can’t give full time like men, though there might be a few exceptions”.

Nearly a week after the polls had closed, the official counting of votes had yet to be finished. But the partial results already had as winners 133 of the “exceptions” that NLD found, along with 748 of its male candidates.

At one point during the campaign, Suu Kyi had simplified decision-making for voters by telling audiences to “go for the party, not the candidate”. To NLD critics, the exhortation was admission that perhaps some of those the party nominated to run for legislative seats were not really up to the job.

“Don’t look at the party, but the qualification of candidates,” Toe Nandar Tin, a 62-year-old candidate from USDP, had told a visiting journalist. A zoology PhD who runs a fishing and trading business, she said women should be well-educated and knowledgeable in economics to enter parliament.

Kumudra Journal’s Nan Lwin, however, seems to consider the women NLD selected as being “good” and “having a great political image”. These were among the criteria she set up to help her decide which female candidates to feature in her publication, which turned out to interview mostly those from NLD. According to Nan, she also chose those “who sacrificed their life for politics”, as well as women who were former political prisoners.

Kumudra ran interviews with 10 or so women candidates. But only one was from USDP while two others were from parties based in conflict areas (Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and Kachin State Democracy Party).


Women under an NLD government

This early, some local media outfits are already taking a closer look at what having more women in parliament – and under an NLD government -- could mean. In a 13 November piece, Myanmar Times noted that the section on women in the NLD’s manifesto (released just last September) “lacked any specific policies”.

Consisting of four short paragraphs, the women’s issues section of the party manifesto contained pledges such as having existing laws implemented “effectively so that women in all sectors…have equal rights with men”. NLD also promised to take necessary action to end the persecution of women, boost women’s legal awareness, fight against gender discrimination in schools, and ensure state healthcare support for pregnant women, among other things.

“This is something the new government should address at the earliest opportunity,” Myanmar Times, referring to women’s concerns, said in the 13 November piece. “Improving gender rights in this country should not be a side issue, but at the heart of government policies.”

Six days later, the news organisation ran an article speculating over which women’s concerns would be highlighted in the Mandalay Region Hluttaw now that it had four female MPs (three of them courtesy of NLD). It quoted sitting the Democratic Party’s Daw Tin Tin Mar, who was once the Hluttaw’s sole female lawmaker, as saying: “Male MPs can’t do much for women’s rights because only women know about their own problems. Women MPs will do better than men. In particular, I hope that they raise the issue of domestic violence.”

Daw Suu Kyi herself has retained her seat at the Lower House. Yangon University medical student Yu Htwe, who voted for the first time on 8 November, said she believed Suu Kyi will bring change to Myanmar. She added, “Suu Kyi in parliament, she can stand (up more) bravely than the men.”

But GEN’s May Sabe Phyu does not expect Suu Kyi to “specifically focus on gender issues”. She said the NLD chief is more “a representative for democracy” and the leader of all of Myanmar’s peoples. Democracy, May said, is the priority for Myanmar.


* This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program raising a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Shinta Maharani is an Indonesian Journalist, working as the Yogyakarta based correspondent for Tempo Magazine, Indonesia.

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