The Irrawaddy

Remembering Myanmar’s Unsung Heroes — Its Women

Family members of political prisoners wait for them to come out from Yangon's Insein prison after authorities released them in January, 2012.

To mark International Women’s Day, I embrace this opportunity to honor the countless women who have dedicated and continue to dedicate their lives to their families, communities and countries with loving kindness, empathy, courage and the many other qualities their male counterparts so often lack. Unavoidably for me, first among these women is my late mother.

My mother not only led our family as a breadwinner, she also raised her boys to think rationally and justly and backed her rebellious sons when they opposed oppressive regimes right up until she met her ill-fated death, her body crushed by a Hino vehicle carrying Air Force personnel as she was making her way back home. That was in August 1994 — more than two years after I was thrown into jail for my political activism.

I am certain that as she took her last breath on that spot, at the age 49, she was thinking about what would happen during the coming week, when she was due to come and visit me in prison. (Her other son was at that moment living in exile.) Since my sentencing to 10 years in prison by a military tribunal, she had never missed a single one of the biweekly visits she was permitted to make to her political prisoner son in Insein Prison.

By the time she died, she had visited the prison more than 60 times to bring me the food, medicine and other materials that not only I but also my fellow political prisoners so badly needed. But her visits were intended not only to meet my material needs, but also to provide the strong moral support I would need to survive my 10-year imprisonment.

In our country under the previous military regime, it was beyond difficult and dangerous to be the mother of both a political prisoner and an exiled political activist.

While running her own business to take care of the family — as well as provide for me in prison — she faced harassment, threats and intimidation from officials of the junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, in her ward and township, as well as from plainclothes officers belonging to the regime’s notorious Military Intelligence apparatus. In their eyes, she was simply the mother of a prisoner and an outcast who had defied their authority. But she stood up to them until her last day.

In fact, my mother was just one among countless mothers, sisters, wives and individual women in Myanmar who bravely endured similar or even worse situations under one of a series of authoritarian regimes from 1962 to 2010.

Other women took even more risks to play leading roles in the fight for freedom and/or democracy throughout British colonial rule in the late 19th-century, the pre- and post- independence eras, and various authoritarian and military regimes from 1962 to 2010.

We may never know how many mothers, wives, sisters and partners were victims of those oppressive systems and the abusive individuals who did their bidding. Nor will we ever fully appreciated the extent to which so many of them managed to overcome these hardships.

Throughout Myanmar’s history, women have always been at the forefront of efforts to combat oppression and promote democracy. In the early 20th century, when the country was under colonial rule, women were active in the nationalist movement that led to independence in 1948.

With independence restored, the role of women in politics and other sectors was more vital than ever. But their role, especially in politics, diminished after the military staged a coup in 1962. Women were marginalized in the male-dominated regime. The period between 1962 and 1988 under the rule of late dictator Ne Win can be seen as a kind of “dark age” for women.

But when we took to the streets to topple the authoritarian regime during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, young female students in my classrooms joined the movement along with women from every sector. Win Maw Oo was just one example of how bravely women and girls took to the forefront of the movement, staring down the regime’s rifle barrels. She was just 16 when she was gunned down in downtown Yangon on Sept. 19, 1988, the day after the military staged a bloody coup.

Several hundred female political activists were among those of us locked up for lengthy terms in cells at prisons across the country. Some might wonder how those female political prisoners managed to overcome such hardships in prisons.

Some of those women are today sitting in national and regional parliaments as lawmakers elected in the 2015 general election. Women now account for 13 percent of the members of the country’s legislative assemblies — an unprecedented though still unsatisfactory level.

But the majority of Myanmar people – both male and female – showed in the 1990 and 2015 elections that they are ready to accept women as their leaders or representatives if they are capable. Led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy won both elections in landslides. Some ethnic women candidates won seats in their constituencies as well.

In Myanmar, which was closed off to the world by authoritarian and military rulers for nearly five decades, there are bound to be many people who cling to old-fashioned political and social norms.

For an individual person to be able to recognize women’s endeavors, sacrifices and achievements, they must be able to change their view and mindset. For an institution or administration, including the incumbent government, it will require policies or decisions that create an environment in which women – half of Myanmar’s more than 51 million people – can fulfill their important roles — which are not limited to nurturing families, but extend to leading their country to a better future — with all their strengths and abilities.