Ten Myanmar Women Who Inspired Us in 2020

By San Yamin Aung 30 December 2020

They fought on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus, contributed to improving society, helped others through inspirational works and made a difference through their passion, dedication and courage; The Irrawaddy recognizes 10 women whose efforts stood out in this difficult year.

Anesthesiologist Dr. Myint Myint Sein is seen at Pyay General Hospital. / Facebook

Dr. Myint Myint Sein & women health-care workers: Warriors in the fight against COVID-19

Attending to a coronavirus patient earlier this year, knowing that she herself would likely be infected, 58-year-old anesthesiologist Dr. Myint Myint Sein removed her eye shield without hesitation in order to intubate the patient who was in critical condition and in need of breathing support, as there was no video laryngoscope and the doctor’s protective gear was adding to the poor visibility. The patient later died, and she became the first doctor to be infected with the coronavirus in Myanmar on April 11.  Media accounts that emerged of her small team’s struggle to manage COVID-19 patients at Pyay General Hospital in Bago Region shed light on the difficulties health care workers face in their attempts to save COVID-19 patients’ lives. She told State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during a video conference that, “Without proper medical supplies, it is like going into battle without a weapon.” She later returned to work after recovering and being discharged from the hospital.

Like Dr. Myint Myint Sein, numerous other women health-care workers have also served on the frontline in the fight against the invisible enemy, putting their own lives on the line to help others. Some of them—both doctors and nurses—have lost their lives after contracting the virus while helping others.

Daw Ywat Nu Aung: Uncovering the truth in the face of injustice

Mandalay-based lawyer Daw Ywat Nu Aung fought for truth by taking on challenging legal cases against Buddhist ultranationalists in their stronghold area, Mandalay Region, and also against powerful and influential people. During the trials, she faced threats—verbally and even via a lawsuit—but they didn’t deter the lawyer’s belief in the truth. Through her outstanding legal work on behalf of those she believed have been treated unfairly, she has risen to prominence as a brilliant and righteous female lawyer who doesn’t put money first but fights against injustice.

Daw Win Mya Mya is seen with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. / Thet Aung

Daw Win Mya Mya: Veteran activist takes a Lower House seat

Persecution—including a brutal attack by military-backed thugs in which both her arms were shattered—several stints in prison and the forced shutdown of her family’s businesses, have only made Daw Win Mya Mya, who has devoted her life to the struggle for democracy, stronger. The 71-year-old Muslim woman, who is a loyal supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, spent most of her days in prison or some form of detention under the military regime. After being denied a chance to stand as an MP in 2015 because of her religion (the NLD’s strategy at that time was to avoid giving its opponents a chance to use religious smears during the election campaign), she was chosen by the party to contest a Lower House seat in the Sintkai constituency of Mandalay Region in this year’s poll. Buddhist Nationalists raised objections against her candidacy but the veteran activist was elected with overwhelming support.

Dr. Khin Khin Gyi: A voice to trust amid the pandemic

Throughout this year of public health emergency, Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of the Central Epidemiology Unit, has skillfully collected and managed the real-time information needed to keep the public informed about every step of the Health Ministry’s response to COVID-19. Among the government’s spokespersons—most of whom are men who have been largely inactive in their roles—she has stood out for her performance, maximizing the reach of the government’s important health messages to the public. Dr. Khin Khin Gyi has actively and consistently provided guidance and explanations in her updates on the deadly new infectious disease, including preventive measures to stay safe, and translated the latest research findings into terms readily understandable. She has transmitted this information through both the press and Facebook, the country’s most widely used social media platform. Her personal Facebook account has become a key channel for residents to voice their questions and concerns and to help reduce the level of fear, stigma and misinformation surrounding the pandemic.

Mon State parliament Speaker Daw Tin Ei during a parliamentary session. / Mon State Parliament / Facebook

Daw Tin Ei: Mon State’s universally respected parliament speaker

The soft-spoken Daw Tin Ei, the speaker of the Mon State parliament, turns tough and assertive in the chamber, maintaining careful checks and balances over executive power. She often faults ministers who don’t take lawmakers’ questions seriously, who are poorly prepared to give answers, or who try to intimidate parliamentarians asserting their right to freedom of speech in defense of constituents. Due to the strong leadership and impartiality she has shown during her speakership, the NLD veteran, the first and so far only woman to head a legislature in Myanmar, earns respect and admiration inside Mon State and beyond. Members of rival parties and even military personnel have shown their admiration for her. In September, pictures of Mon State’s military-appointed minister for security and border affairs and military-appointed lawmakers in the state parliament paying respects to Daw Tin Ei at her home spread on social media. However, the 75-year-old has decided not to seek reappointment as speaker in the state parliament’s next term in order to give young people a chance.

Pandora: A unique poetic voice

Through her reflections, thoughts and expressions of her inner self, renowned poet Pandora not only provides aesthetic pleasure, but also provokes philosophical speculation among the readers of her poems. In December, Pandora, the country’s most vocal champion of women poets, won a national literary award for a poem in her anthology titled “Kha Yu Pit Laun Chor”. The national literary award selection committee said Pandora writes with thoughtfulness, seriousness and care, reflected in her beautifully layered tone. It praised her search for truth and mocking of wrongdoing through her distinctive use of contradictory words and phrases in her poems. She compiled and published the first ever anthology of Myanmar women poets in 2012, followed by a second edition in 2017. Her works have been translated and published in several international magazines.

Actress Khine Hnin Wai together with her adopted children at the center in Yangon. / Khine Hnin Wai / Facebook

Khine Hnin Wai: Actress doing vital charity work

The COVID-19 pandemic has battered the world, destroying lives and livelihoods, forcing many businesses to close or suspend operations. Yet it hasn’t been able to stop, or even hinder, people from expressing their humanity and generosity by helping those in need during the crisis. One of these people is Myanmar actress Khine Hnin Wai, who is loved by the people for her charitable activities. For years, the actress has been helping single mothers, child rape victims and poor people through the philanthropic organization she founded in 2014. She has also adopted around 40 orphans and abandoned children at a center she opened in Yangon. Even amid the lean times of COVID-19, the actress has continued her charitable activities and donations, including saving unwanted newborn babies abandoned after delivery.

Female police officer: Whistleblower on sexual exploitation in the police force

A courageous female police officer filed a complaint against Police Brigadier-General Zaw Moe Than, who oversaw appointments in the Myanmar Police Force, accusing him of demanding sex in exchange for promotions. Thanks to her brave action, the officer was jailed in early July, a rare conviction in Myanmar, where high-ranking officials are generally not held to account for abuses of power.

When the case first emerged, it was known only that a female police officer had filed a complaint against Zaw Moe Than, but according to sources in the police force, at least eight female officers also filed complaints accusing him of sexual exploitation. The first case of its kind to emerge publicly, it was followed by social media reports of sexual exploitation by other supervisors. The scandal has also prompted calls to reform the police force, which is notorious for corruption and abuse of power.

Mi Mi Aung and members of NASA’s Mars helicopter project observe a flight test in January 2019. / NASA / JPL-Caltech

Mi Mi Aung: Engineer helping NASA explore Mars

It all started when a young girl, filled with curiosity as she gazed up at the starry night sky as a kid, asked herself the question, “Is there life up there?” All these years later, Mi Mi Aung’s childhood fascination with space is undiminished. She leads the team that created the Mars autonomous helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Mi Mi Aung and her team spent six years designing and developing “Ingenuity”, a small craft light enough to fly in Mars’ very thin atmosphere and which is set to become the first aircraft to fly on another planet. It is currently en route to Mars, attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which was launched into space on July 30 and is due to arrive at the Red Planet in February 2021. If successful, Ingenuity could pioneer an aerial dimension to space exploration, aiding both robots and humans in the future.

Ma Thinzar Than Min: Brave military daughter who dared to call out Tatmadaw wrongdoing

Ahead of November’s general election, Ma Thinzar Than Min, the 25-year-old daughter of a medical assistant at Infantry Battalion No. 235 stationed in Pakokku Township of central Magwe Region, revealed on Facebook that she and her family were being pressured to vote for the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The young woman also said that due to her public support for the National League for Democracy (NLD), she had received threats that her father could lose his position if she voted for the ruling party. In early December, she was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment for her daring words against the army, which were deemed to have violated a law against causing or intending to cause members of the armed forces to mutiny, fail in, or disregard their duties.

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