Women fighters challenge Myanmar’s gender roles

More than a year after Myanmar’s coup, women are joining the ranks of anti-junta paramilitary groups and assuming key posts within the opposition, a trend they say is crucial to ending military rule and rebuilding a more equitable country.

Since the military seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy on Feb. 1, 2021, life is worse in Myanmar by nearly every measure. The nation’s economy is in shambles, government services have ground to a halt, and rule of law is nearly nonexistent.

Security forces have arrested at least 9,500 people and killed 1,620 – mostly during peaceful anti-junta protests, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Dozens of those killed were women, according to the group, while rights organizations have decried the military’s use of sexual violence as a weapon against its opponents since the coup.

As the situation in Myanmar becomes increasingly desperate, women from all walks of life have assumed roles more typically associated with men in the effort to end military rule — whether by advancing the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, organizing street protests, or taking up arms as members of prodemocracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary groups.

Tin Tin Nyo, chairwoman of Burmese Women’s Union, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that women are more likely to sacrifice their families and even their lives to take part in the resistance movement because the stakes have never been higher. She said that women are needed in these roles if the opposition hopes to remove the junta from power and ensure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table when order is restored.

“[Women] will not give up and will keep fighting to eliminate military rule — we need to acknowledge that as a nation,” she said. “Women are participating in the cause to build a better future for Myanmar. They need to participate in leadership roles. Their labor is crucial to advance our society, which is deteriorating in every area.”

RFA spoke with several female leaders in the resistance movement who said that they were driven to action out of a sense of duty to protect their nation from junta misrule. They said that they hope their contributions will help to break down barriers that limit the role of women in society.

Amaya joined the Myaung Women Guerrilla Group (MWGG) in Sagaing region’s Myaung township and regularly fights against the military alongside her male counterparts.

She said she and other women paramilitaries could no longer stand by and watch while junta soldiers “shot and killed young people in the street,” particularly after those in Myaung township began “moving from one village to another, committing every crime imaginable, on a daily basis.”

“We were protesting peacefully but they were killing us lawlessly, so we decided that armed resistance was the only option,” she said. “Slogans such as ‘Down with the fascist authoritarian regime’ and ‘Our cause is Federalism’ motivated us to participate in the movement.”

MWGG members have told RFA that the group was launched in October to empower women who might otherwise be preyed upon by raiding troops. They said that MWGG fighters now regularly participate in operations using explosives and “exterminating military informers.”

Members of the Myaung Women Guerrilla Group (MWGG) in Sagaing region’s Myaung township, in an undated photo. Credit: MWGG

‘Fighting to protect’ the people

Htet Htet Naing, a female commando from a PDF group based in the seat of Sagaing region, said that after witnessing death and destruction in her region, she felt compelled to fight on the frontlines.

“There are many challenges, and it is more challenging for women. It is very exhausting to take part in the training. The food we are eating is substandard,” she said. “We keep in mind that only by fighting, will we succeed. We remind ourselves that the people are behind us, and we are fighting to protect them.”

Cinderella, a fighter from the Dove KK Southern Shan/Kayah PDF medics team of doctors and nurses from Kayah state, said it isn’t difficult to remind herself of why she joined the armed resistance.

“This revolution has emerged to eliminate the reign of a class of people who rule by violence and lawlessness, in a time of injustice where human rights exist only in books,” she said.

“All of Myanmar’s people, both men and women, must take part in this revolution. I am here to contribute physically and intellectually for our collective future. No matter what kind of challenges lie ahead, we will do whatever we can to succeed.”

Mya Hnin Yee Lwin, a former actress who joined the armed resistance, said that she gave up a comfortable life to help motivate her countrymen “not to give up on the revolution.”

“We are living a lifestyle that I could never have imagined, but I no longer think, ‘What’s in it for me?’ I can only think about how I can contribute to the revolution,” she said.

“I believe [justice] always prevails in the end and I believe we will reach our destination one day.”

Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.



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