Myanmar Women Seek Social and Political Change in 2020

Nearly five million first time voters (aged 18-22) are anticipated to cast their ballots in Myanmar’s 2020 general election on 8 November, according to figures from the last census.

A woman after submitted a vote at a polling station in Yangon during the 2015 election (Source: File/Prachatai)

While youth involvement in political parties is uncommon, the number of women standing as candidates in the election – the country’s second since the transition from military to civilian rule began in 2012 – has risen dramatically.

This is due to the role Aung San Suu Kyi has played as leader of the National League for Democracy government over the last four years. But in smaller political parties across the country, women’s representation is growing at a much slower pace. 

“Within political parties, men are nominated more often. If there were a proper representational system there would be more opportunities for women to get involved in the parties and the elections,” said Htet Oo Wai, 34, Director at the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD). 

In the last year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has travelled to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide, and has spearheaded the country’s coronavirus response using Facebook Live to deliver timely news and information on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Inside Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity has soared. Billboards and posters bearing her image are everywhere in Yangon, the largest city. She is widely cited by aspiring women politicians as to why they got involved in the political process, according to the Asia Foundation, an international development agency.

“Within the National League for Democracy [government] the women [members of parliament] perform much better than the male MPs. I think voters realize women can perform better if given a chance,” said Cheery Zahau, 39, a political and human rights activist.

This year, the National League for Democracy almost doubled the number of women candidates it had five years ago. Women now make up 20 percent of the NLD’s slate of candidates in the upcoming election. 

In the last election the NLD had 13.5 percent women candidates, which is roughly equivalent to the percentage of women elected to parliament.

But Myanmar's constitution states that 25 percent of all seats belong to the military. So this means women's political representation nationwide stands at 10 percent because the military has only six women in its 166 designated seats.

The Asia Foundation’s 2016 report, Women’s Political Participation in Myanmar found after the last election: “The number of female representatives in the national parliament more than doubled from 6.0 to 13.7% of all elected MPs; 23 women parliamentarians entered the upper house and 44 in the lower house.” 

Aung San Suu Kyi has come under criticism from former members of parliament. Thet Thet Khine, 53, accused the NLD government of trying to silence her from talking to the media.

So last year, Thet Thet Khine quit the NLD to found a new political party, the Pioneer People’s Party (PPP). She believes fielding only 20 per cent women candidates isn’t enough to effect real change in government. 

“I think it’s a universal problem that the roles of women and youth are underestimated. We are trying to reverse this trend," she said. “We are the party that recognizes the role of women.”

Naw Ohn Hla, will stand as candidate for Kayin Ethnic Affairs Minister in Yangon Region for the United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP). (Source: Adam Bemma) 

Fifteen years ago, Naw Ohn Hla was expelled from the NLD because of her activism. But she kept volunteering for the party until 2012 – the year Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament and the transition to democracy began in Myanmar. 

Since 2016, Naw Ohn Hla has become a thorn in the side of the NLD government – trying to hold it accountable to women, youth and ethnic minorities.

Naw Ohn Hla, 58, will stand as candidate for Kayin Ethnic Affairs Minister in Yangon Region for the United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP). This new party is hoping to reach voters who feel alienated by the NLD.

“Since we established our party, there were 30 percent of females. It is already included in our party’s principles. When we have more females, we will be able to understand people’s difficulties with the mindset of a mother,” she said.

Defeated in the last election by the NLD candidate in her hometown of Falam, Chin State, Cheery Zahau has since worked hard to unite three ethnic Chin political parties to contest this upcoming election under one umbrella.

The Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) was formed in 2018. It hopes to win big on 8 November and form a state government. But Cheery Zahau said most male party leaders are still hesitant on the idea of gender equality. 

“We approved 30 percent of women’s participation in our party both in the community and as candidates. The policy is there but we don’t have the strategy to get more women involved. It’s still a struggle,” she added.

Legislation has been discussed in Myanmar for a gender quota system to mandate an increase women’s participation in political parties. Some political parties have adopted it voluntarily. This could help to boost the number of women in government as has been seen in countries with the same electoral system as Myanmar such as the UK, Canada, Kenya and India. 

But many in the NLD government are hesitant to mandate a space for women for fear of having them seen as needing help and not being electable on their own merits. 

With the most famous woman in the country leading the current government under a power sharing agreement with the military, Aung San Suu Kyi lacks the necessary power to institute real social and political change in Myanmar.

“When we talk about women, when we talk about youth, the narrative is always as vulnerable groups,” said NIMD’s Htet Oo Wai. 

“I hope to see women and youth viewed differently. They are capable and ready to take the lead if they are nominated or elected,” she added.