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International Women’s Day and one year of ‘Manels’ exhibition

FROM THE DVB NEWSROOM

The “Manels Exhibition: Where are the Women?” was launched in Chiang Mai, Thailand by the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) and the Salween Institute for Public Policy (SI) on International Women’s Day March 8, 2023. It raised awareness about all-male panels, excluding women, hosted by pro-democracy organizations from Burma. 

The two organizers, Nang Moet Moet from WLB and Yinglao Noanvo from SI, spoke to DVB about its use of all-male panels from the 2021 military coup up to 2023. Photos of DVB “manels” were featured in the exhibit. Since then DVB has actively included more women’s voices on our panels. A TV program called Women’s Voice was launched in November. 

Last October, the “Manels Exhibition: Where are the Women?” went on display at SEA Junction in Bangkok, Thailand. It started a discussion about the inclusion of more women in panel discussions across Southeast Asia.

Nang Moet Moet: We have done two major exhibitions in 2023 called “Manels.” These are photos of all-male panels taken from social media. This includes the mainstream media and other media. It features all-male panels from before and after the 2021 [military coup]. Prior to 2021, there were all-male panel discussions, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since nobody could organize in-person events. So we were able to monitor social media for manels.

Yinglao Noanvo: We not only looked at the panels, we also looked at talk shows. If you look at the entire year, every week this talk show would invite one person to have discussion on a specific topic extensively. The majority of the people invited were men. That is problematic. It’s about four or five speakers on a panel, and they are all males. If you look at those individual interviews on the political or economic situation in our country, we will also see that most of those interviews are with male experts, even though we also have many female experts. 

The organizers of those talk shows have the opportunity to invite four people, five people on the panels, and somehow they always, most of the time end up with all males. That’s why we are calling all these all-male panels, because in our exhibition itself, we also explain that in a democratic society, we will need different voices and different opinions. 

Not including women’s voices, even though you are not intentionally excluding them, the end result is that you exclude the voices of half of the population. And that is not good for democracy. From the policy point of view you need to be able to analyze the problems from different perspectives in order to identify what the root cause of the problems are, and in order to be able to identify what the possible solutions should be and could be, and by not including half of the population and their voices in the analysis, you are significantly missing out. That’s why we have been calling them out. 

Generally speaking, if we look at it from our fellow women’s organizations or human rights organizations, the response and the feedback were positive and quite supportive in a lot of ways. But in some instances, leaders of armed organizations or some political actors, they somehow felt offended by us calling them out on this particularly on the manels exhibition posters. In the posters, we line up all the male panelists, the people who have participated in all-male panels. 

There were like 100 of them, and we lined up all of their pictures up and we also have these giant red letters asking a question: Where are the women?

Somehow this really large group of people managed to not see those giant red letters asking, where are the women? And somehow managed to see only the tiny pictures of these individuals and accused us of offending them, and violating their privacy, by using their pictures without their permission. 

Our intent wasn’t to embarrass them. But if that makes them stop participating in manels, we’ll take it. We did not violate their privacy because those pictures were publicly available. Those pictures were taken from the posters of all-male panels. We did not need their permission to use those pictures because they have been used by many others as well. All of them are public figures. So for this reason, we do not think that we are doing anything wrong. 

NMM: When we did the exhibition in Chiang Mai, many media in Chiang Mai like DVB [were included]. The first time we got a bit more positive feedback because we also had commitments that they wouldn’t organize manels anymore. But when we had it in Bangkok we got more offensive feedback, along with personal and organizational attacks. 

We also have joined a regional level manel discussion. So we also had collaboration with some from other countries as well. Some people joined us in solidarity. 

YN: Why are we only calling out the people who participated in the manels? Why don’t we also call out the organizers or the sponsors? Our response is that we do, we actually call out the organizers and also as well as the sponsors as well, particularly sponsors, we’re calling them out. And since the first exhibition, a number of donors have included in their grants an agreement condition that the funding from this specific organization must not be used to fund all-male panels and all-male programs. 

There must be a minimum of a certain number of women participating in all those programs. Otherwise they will not be eligible to use those funding and so on and so forth. So now we are also seeing increasing numbers of funders and donors that included this and their funding may not be used on all-male activities. 

However a lot of the manels exist. That is the reason why we decided to do a second exhibition. We felt the need to do it again. We called them out for the first time. And some people actually responded positively. Some people responded negatively, some people just ignored it. 

But what we continue to see is all these different manels being organized despite our advocacy and awareness raising. So we continue to collect them and call them out. 

We know that manels are not unique to Burma, it’s a regional issue, it’s an international issue. And so we want to show our solidarity with other people in other countries who are also doing the same kind of advocacy work. That’s why we decided to do it in Bangkok. 

We were very lucky to be hosted by the SEA Junction at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC). The people from the Burma democracy movement actually joined the event, but we also get to have wider reach in terms of audience because Bangkok Art and Culture Center is visited by many visitors on a daily basis. And we are able to raise awareness about this to a general audience as well. 

Many of the events and many of the activities that are carried out by the Burma democracy movement are not sponsored by any international funders, they are either self sponsors or they are sponsored by our own people. 

The Burma democracy movement has become highly militarized and warfare is considered as a male domain. So anytime there is an analysis or discussion on these kinds of issues automatically from the organizers point of view, as well as from the speakers or even from the audience point of view, they would automatically see that this is male domain and it’s perfectly natural. And it’s okay to just simply invite men, you know? 

But in reality, when we look at the list of analysts, experts, as well as the people who are responding to this crisis, you will see that a lot of women are at the forefront of responding to the humanitarian crises. When we analyze war, we don’t just simply analyze warfare. We also analyze the consequences of warfare. That would include the humanitarian crisis and attacks on civilians or the human rights violations. Women are at the forefront of that. And they must be included in those discussions and conversations. And yet we have not seen enough of them in that. 

If we truly want to fight for democracy and we really want to defeat the military and reduce the militarization in our country, it’s really important to fight patriarchy. Calling out manels and ending [it] is a way of fighting patriarchy. 

NMM:  Some people still believe that all-male panels are fine and when we talk about patriarchy, it’s not only about men. I don’t think that we can stop those manels today or tomorrow. It’s going to take time because patriarchy has been with us for more than 100,000 years. 

We have to fight this because nowadays we are talking about what we want from this revolution. Everybody said that our vision, our political vision, of this revolution is to establish a federal democratic union. Everybody agrees that equality is important. But when it comes to talking about equality, mostly people just consider national equality, ethnic equality. So gender equality is always excluded. 

At the Women’s League of Burma, it’s not only our responsibility but we’re continuously doing this. So we are raising awareness and changing the mindset of the people. But everyone, even our media, also are responsible for this. 

YN: One of the objectives of organizing this kind of exhibition is to actually start a conversation. We want to have a conversation. We’re not claiming that what we are doing, what we are saying is right, or what our solution is the only solution. 

What we are saying is this is a start and we want to have a conversation. And suddenly now people do not necessarily come and have a conversation with us. That wasn’t also our objective either. So if people are having conversation among themselves, or in a different setting and really talking about inclusion and what it means.

There is a reason why inclusion is very important in any political process, because it doesn’t happen automatically. It’s the same in every single revolution. It’s not just unique to Burma. If we look at it, the reason why people revolt is because they feel excluded, and that is why inclusion is very important. 

The civil war did not start just three years ago. It started 75 years ago. Why did it start? It started because some group of people were excluded from the mainstream political discussion, from the from this whole decision-making process from the political bodies. 

That’s why they demanded equal participation and representation. And they have been met with violence and imprisonment. That is the reason why Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) started revolution to demand their right to equality and self-determination. 

Even if we look at the unrest in our country, we know that the root cause is exclusion. And the way to address the issues of exclusion is to actively pursue inclusion. And it doesn’t happen automatically. You need to make a conscious effort to truly include people, to actually make people feel included.

But what we are seeing is that people are not actively pursuing that, and that’s why they always end up with one dominant group after another representing them in these panels and in these discussions. And that is actually hindering the progress in our democracy movement. 

We ourselves are actually the root cause of slowing down the Burma democracy movement. Our approach is that the whole objective of doing this exhibition is to start a conversation to encourage all these relevant actors, different organizations, media, everyone, to be mindful of inclusion and that it doesn’t happen automatically and we all must [make] an effort to make it happen.


*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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