A Woman’s Political Work is Never Done
covering burma and southeast asia
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GUEST COLUMN

A Woman’s Political Work is Never Done


By NAN KHIN HTWAY MYINT FEBRUARY, 2010 - VOLUME 18 NO.2


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Taking their cue from Aung San Suu Kyi, many women in Burma remain firmly committed to the struggle for democracy

Even after more than 21 years of relentless repression—and with no end in sight—there are still many women in Burma who continue to actively support the country’s pro-democracy movement. 

For most, the source of their conviction is the example of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has inspired many women to join the National League for Democracy (NLD). Although we  also have immense respect for our male leaders, Suu Kyi has done the most to nurture our political awareness. She is not just someone we admire, but a role model for all women who want to make a difference in Burma. 

In 1990, I was elected as an NLD member of parliament. Out of 400 parliamentarians elected at that time, just 15 were women. But of course, none of us were allowed to serve our terms in office, because the regime refused to recognize the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory.

Twenty years later, the NLD continues to exist as a legally constituted political party. And yet, we are often forced to operate like an underground organization. Our offices have been shut, and we must keep a low profile. Even when we were permitted to work openly, we were under constant surveillance from the authorities.

This means that many women who work for democracy in Burma must do so without attracting attention to themselves. But even so, they face harassment from a regime that is intent on silencing dissent. For example, here in Karen State many are threatened with arrest because they have relatives who have illegally entered Thailand in search of work.  In this way, the junta is able to put pressure on those who wish to engage in political work.  

Perhaps a more daunting factor that stands in the way of women who want to participate in politics is the need to make a living. Economic survival is most people’s number one priority in Burma, and for many women, especially those with children, the demands of everyday life often make it impossible for them to devote themselves to political activism.

Fortunately for me, I do not face such pressure in my life, although some have tried to persuade me to stay away from politics and focus instead on business. But even those who are relatively free of worries about their livelihood must bear in mind that they, too, can lose it all if they chose to openly oppose the regime.

Many doctors and lawyers have been stripped of their licenses for contributing their time and energy to the cause of Burmese democracy, and many businesses have been shut down because of their owners’ political sympathies. Thousands have been dragged away from their families and imprisoned, and many have died in detention.

We must never forget the sacrifices of those who have paid a heavy price for their political convictions. At the same time, however, we should remember that no one is safe from such abuses in Burma, whether they are involved in politics or not.

Both men and women are routinely denied their most basic rights in this country. At one time, Burmese soldiers in Karen State only forced men to work as porters, but now women are also expected to perform this backbreaking, often deadly labor. Other forms of forced labor are also widespread, resulting in further economic hardship for the country’s poor.

Against this grim backdrop, it is difficult to see any real prospect for political reform in Burma. Some see a glimmer of hope in the election that will take place sometime this year, but I personally don’t believe it will make any difference. Only our own determination to continue with the struggle for democracy will prevent the country from succumbing to the darkness of continuing oppression.

Although I don’t think the NLD should take part in this election unless the Constitution is thoroughly revised, I believe that it will attract more women than the 1990 election. This is because women have become more politically aware over the past two decades.

Unfortunately, however, a provision in the Constitution guaranteeing 25 percent of seats in Parliament to the military means that few women are likely to have a chance to  serve their country as elected representatives. And a requirement that the president must be someone with military experience precludes the possibility of a woman ever assuming this high office.

But these constitutional barriers are only part of the problem. No one believes that this election will be free and fair. Candidates who are not backed by the junta will know that they face almost insurmountable odds.

Despite all these obstacles, however, I am confident that women will continue to lend their strength to the Burmese democracy movement.



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