Militaries, men and a machismo mindset

As Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein travels around Burma trying to garner support for the Democratic Party (DP), she is met with admiration and respect. The 62-year-old admits that she owes much of this adulation to her father and former deputy prime minister, the late Kyaw Nyein.

“They [the people of Burma] worship him and appreciate his doings. I am happy to know that they have accepted my father and are helping me because I am his daughter,” Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein tells DVB, agreeing that it would have been a much tougher task reaching where she is today had she lacked the political background.

A look at the candidature for the upcoming elections reveals that most women candidates either have a rich political background or support of an influential male member in their favour. Along with Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, some of the prominent women contesting elections this year are former Prime Minister U Nu’s daughter May Than Than Nu; Nay Ye Ba Swe, the daughter of former Prime Minister during the rule of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), U Ba Swe, and the daughter and wife of Modern Party chairperson U Tun Aung Kyaw, Yi Yi San.

It was at the previous elections in 1990 that the world witnessed the rise of an iconic leader in Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s first prominent woman politician. She won the hearts of the common Burmese people (as well as the elections) but was denied power by the junta. However, Suu Kyi’ rise to popularity is also largely attributed to her father and revolutionary leader General Aung San, who won Burma freedom from British colonialism.

“Suu Kyi’s case is not that of an ordinary Burmese woman. She has the rich legacy of her father behind her. She is an extremely capable woman, but so are many others in Burma. It’s sad that only the likes of Daw Suu Kyi get the chance to exhibit their abilities,” Tin Tin Nyo, general secretary of Burma Women’s Union (BWU), says.

While it is difficult to obtain precise figures, a rough estimate suggests that less than one percent of the representatives for this year’s elections are women. And it might come as a rude awakening to feminists that there isn’t one women’s political organisation in the country.

Women’s organisations within Burma, like the Myanmar Maternity (MM) and the Myanmar Women’ Affairs Federation (MWAF), are headed by wives of the generals or military officials at high posts. This again stresses the need for male backing in order to be part of any organisation, in this case a proxy for the military.

Most women activists who work at the grassroots level function from Burmese border areas of Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh. They cannot aspire to a career in politics as the laws put forth by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) prohibit persons in exile from participating.

The 2008 constitution has already put women at a disadvantage – 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military in both the People’s parliament and the Nationalities Parliament. Given that all members of the military are male, the assigned quarter of the parliament will see no representation for women.

The candidates’ registration fee for this election is 500,000 kyat ($US500). It is unreasonable to imagine that many women in this low-income society would be able to raise the required amount. Well-educated women are respected and do stand a fair chance to be successful leaders, but the very fact that many girls do not have access to basic education holds them back from pursuing bigger – in this case, political – ambitions ahead.

“According to our historical analysis, Burmese women were engaged in politics in the uprisings during the British era and the democratic period that followed. It was after General Ne Win’s coup [in 1962] that their activities were suppressed. Then on, women’s rights have received a major setback,” Tin Tin Nyo added.

As Christina Fink suggests in her book, Living Silence, during the democratic struggle of the late 1980s the decision to participate in political activities was particularly difficult for young women, given the social stigma that clung on. Single women were barred from going out alone to attend meetings or staying out at night. If they did, they were tagged as being ‘bad’ girls. These cultural norms are still prevalent in the current-day Burmese society, making political engagement doubly difficult for women in comparison to men.

“Being a woman politician in Burma means meeting with a lot of obstacles. There are a lot of male chauvinists here. Burmese women are normally assigned roles of mothers, daughters or wives, while the men are seen as leaders,” Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein remarks. It therefore makes the job of convincing the conservative masses of their leadership skills more difficult for the ‘ordinary’ Burmese women politicians.

The status of women in Burma is arguably one of the worst in the world. For long, the regime has used systematic rape and other acts of sexual violence against women as a weapon to achieve its ends. Is it then rather early in the day to question the absence of independent women in politics when the people in power are frowned upon for having committed some of the worst human rights abuses against women in recent history?

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