Myanmar women stand defiant on front line of anti-coup protests

Women flashing the three-finger salute - a symbol to denounce the military regime - during a funeral procession in Yangon yesterday for the three female demonstrators who died in Myanmar's anti-coup protests. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

YANGON • Despite the risks, women have stood at the forefront of Myanmar's protest movement, sending a powerful rebuke to the generals who ousted a female civilian leader and reimposed a patriarchal order that has suppressed women for half a century.

By the hundreds of thousands, they have gathered for daily marches, representing striking unions of teachers, garment workers and medical workers - all sectors dominated by women.

The youngest are often on the front line, where the security forces appear to have singled them out. Two young women were shot in the head on Wednesday and another near the heart - three bullets ending their lives.

In the weeks since the protests began, groups of female medical volunteers have patrolled the streets, tending to the wounded and dying. Women have added spine to a civil disobedience movement that is crippling the functioning of the state.

And they have flouted gender stereotypes in a country where tradition holds that garments covering the lower half of the bodies of the two sexes should not be washed together, lest the female spirit act as a contaminant.

With defiant creativity, people have strung up clothes lines of women's sarongs, called htamein, to protect protest zones, knowing that some men are loath to walk under them. Others have affixed images of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who orchestrated the coup, to the hanging htamein, an affront to his virility.

"Young women are now leading the protests because we have a maternal nature and we can't let the next generation be destroyed," said 28-year-old medical doctor Yin Yin Hnoung, who has dodged bullets in Mandalay. "We don't care about our lives. We care about our future generations."

Women have the most to lose from the generals' resumption of full authority, after five years of sharing power with a civilian government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, is deeply conservative.

There are no women in the Tatmadaw's senior ranks, and its soldiers have systematically committed gang rape against women from ethnic minorities, according to investigations by the United Nations.

In the generals' world view, women are often considered weak and impure.

The prejudices are not necessarily shared by Myanmar's broader society.

Women are educated and integral to the economy, particularly in business, manufacturing and the civil service.

And increasingly, women have found their political voice. In elections last November, about 20 per cent of the candidates for the National League for Democracy, Ms Suu Kyi's party, were women.

The party won by a landslide.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2021, with the headline Myanmar women stand defiant on front line of anti-coup protests. Subscribe