As a landmark in the movement to increase global attention to women’s critical role in participation, protection, prevention, relief and recovery in conflict settings, the UN Security Council’s resolutions on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) lend reference power to gender mainstreaming in all issues related to conflict resolution and peace governance – however, they fall short of effectively supporting women’s resistance in Myanmar.
Since the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) swept away the fledging democracy of the country with a coup d’état on February 1, 2021, it has carried out mass atrocities against the wider population. Its rampant repression has highly gendered manifestations and gendered forms of violence, such as sexual harassment that is used exclusively against women protesters in an effort to destroy their dignity. When arrested, women are also faced with heightened risks of violence and abuse, including higher incidence of sexual assaults, rape threats, excessive bodily search, extra verbal insults and beating for “unwomanly” traits such as having a tattoo, and disfigurement. Women are also faced with the risk of extrajudicial killing. Military intimidation also extends to the socio-economic sphere. As crackdowns targeting female protesters become unbridled, groups of women fighters are pushed into co-habitation for personal safety and organization purposes. Their collective residences suffer regular raids and break-ins, with female gatherings consequently subjected to greater scrutiny and surveillance. Through a policy of fear the military tries to prevent women from working, accessing basic social services, or every day mobility.
Despite all its chilling effects, women are still central to the fight against military tyranny, demanding gender-mainstreamed interventions and striving for women’s rights to be embedded in processes of peace and reconstruction. Feminist resistance links to the broader inquiry into women’s roles as agents of change in crises and conflict situation, illuminating the practical and local relevance of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.
Under decades of military rule, women in Myanmar have faced structural violence and discrimination. Nevertheless, they have risen to a leading role in organizing and mobilizing the unprecedented civil and armed resistance against the junta.
Domestic and international observers report that 60% of protesters are women and the figure for those arrested goes above 50%. Female civil servants were among the first to denounce the coup and take it to the street. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education with vast-majority female employees were the first to strike the protest before other ministries followed suit. The resistance in academia, too, features a female lead: out of the 9000 university employees dismissed in 2021, 85% were women. The resistance also presents a noteworthy tendency of women opting to flee to contested rebel regions or joining rebel groups for military resistance. In Sagaing, the first women-only anti-junta militia was formed from a collection of students, teachers, farmers and white-collar workers. Under the insecurity resulting from military abuse, women in the conflict-ridden state of Rakhine are reportedly joining the ranks of the Arakan Army, the most active armed group fighting the military for autonomy in recent years.
While fighting on the frontline or behind the barricade, women coordinate for alternative social services, humanitarian support, and documentation of atrocities. Women-led groups have mobilized volunteers to channel medical, psychiatric and relief services to those wounded, abused, pregnant and at risk, in tandem with working with lawyers and bankers to support women’s access to justice and income-generation activities. These groups have also maintained close correspondence with external actors. Since the coup, women activists have been the most vocal and active in brokering dialogues with UN representatives, civil society organizations, think tanks, academia, and the media around the world. Albeit in exile or hiding, they are the ones who have provided documentation of mass atrocities and drawn up comprehensive action plans for international intervention.
The women of Myanmar have demonstrated innovative ways of fighting and mobilization. Most notably, the hanging of women’s sarongs, intimate underwear, and red-painted sanitary pads in the Civil Disobedience Movement proved to be effective, as the military hesitated to go under these items due to the underlying belief that the proximity with these highly “ungodly” items representing femininity would taint masculinity and offset military fortune. This tactic slowed their advancement, winning precious time for protesters. On another front, female workers filling the foreign investment-dense garment sector mobilized their employers to denounce the illegal military regime, cut economic ties with it, and acknowledge the elected National Union Government (NUG) by organizing onsite sit-ins or making petitions. This embryotic activism on writing off the fiscal fuel for military violence echoes with the call for wider economic sanctions by halting the investment influx to the country and to military holdings.
Women politicians, peace activists, and human rights defenders have all made explicit reference to the Agenda as a necessary tool for their cause. Feminist criticism of the Agenda, however, points to the reductive nature of the Agenda to merely “make wars safer for women” and upholding negative peace. Myanmar women’s resistance and clamor resonate with these critiques while further revealing its other limitations in responding to local contexts, realizing more revolutionary feminist peace visions, and bringing structural changes.
Firstly, the implementation of the WPS Agenda builds on a set of “recommendations” and “suggestions”, relying heavily on state commitment. Notwithstanding, successive governments of Myanmar have shown scarce interest in discussing either gender or conflict, despite its status as one of the most conflict-laden countries in Asia. In fact, both the military and civilian governments demonstrated grudging attitudes towards rights-based conflict governance, such as the investigatory mission on brutality on Rohingya minorities, and the (at best) lukewarm responses to achieving gender equality. As such, the applicability of WPS resolutions loses much of its ground.
Apart from the “implementer struggle”, the state-centric approach has other drawbacks. Above all, it clashes with the increasing occurrence of state-executed violence against civilians. Many peace activists have remarked that framing military brutality and the popular resistance against it as a “conflict” lends the desired legitimacy to the junta and distorts the cause for democracy and freedom. As in the case of lasting atrocities on Rohingyas, the state was the actor of pervasive hate campaigns twisting the genocidal persecution as fighting against ethnic insurgency and of mass violence against women. However, the Agenda does not task itself to challenge fundamental patriarchal or misogynist state structures that perpetrates the very violence on women, which is disconnected from the more revolutionary feminist vision of reconstruction focusing on women’s rights, disarmament, justice and economic security.
The burgeoning participation of women in direct armed confrontation in Myanmar, on the other hand, problematizes the WPS portrayal of women as passive victims of sexual violence, or as inherent peace lovers. Testimonies from women fighters state that sexual assaults are not stopping them from fighting. In the gendered innovations and mobilization for fighting, women also assume the roles of insurgents, human rights defenders, reporters, medics, social workers, and humanitarian workers. It is self-explanatory that the current essentialist reading of gender in conflict blurs the agency of women.
With its weak and porous linkages to international human rights paradigms, most primarily the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), along with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the WPS agenda fails to include many critical feminist concerns in conflict. Among others, women fighters single out the issues of direct defense support, economic empowerment, sexual and reproductive health in emergency settings, and the protection of human rights defenders. Such omissions subsequently prevent substantive financing of genuine needs, unaddressed in WPS decision-making in the first place.
While the international community, most notably the UN and ASEAN, have been repeatedly calling for “cessation of violence of all forms” and “dialogue” to pave the way for peace, this call overlooks the nature of the confrontation as resistance to militarized terrorism and indicates an aim to go back to the pre-coup status quo that marginalized women and ethnic minorities alike. The specific demands of women fighters warrant a closer reading as they voice a quest for a fundamental feminist revolution.
On various occasions, Myanmar women spell out their prerequisites and vision for peace, calling on the international community to leverage the WPS resolutions for actions at all levels, incorporate gender and victim-centered angles to intervention and aid programmes, provide WPS training for civil society actors, legal practitioners, and female fighters, impose arms embargo on the military, provide direct humanitarian aid along with defense and intelligence support to grassroot fighters and women’s organizations, and fund economic empowerment programmes and health services to women living under military brutality. Following gender-mainstreamed interventions, ending impunity for the junta and acknowledging the legitimacy of the NUG should be the foundation to the ultimate goal of establishing a federal democracy that respects women’s rights.
Female activists require global solidarity to keep Myanmar visible and their voices heard in WPS discussions. The key change required to transform the WPS Agenda from being merely rhetorical to being actually practical, as reflected in the endeavors of women in Myanmar, is to tie its intervention efforts to existing procedures. It is well-positioned to lend gendered perspectives to existing accountability and justice proceedings, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision on Myanmar’s Genocide case against the Rohingya minorities and the investigation work of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), and to end impunity and formulate remedies for gross human rights violation. Another example is the potential synergy between the WPS agenda and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which has a brief but explicit provision on business conduct, both regarding women’s empowerment and in conflict-affected environment, and is rightly mobilized in female protesters’ engagement of international companies.