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South-East Asian Women on Women’s Day Call for Equal Opportunities, Lament War and Repression

International Women's Day is celebrated annually on March 8 to commemorate the movement for women's rights.

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Myanmar's former first lady Su Su Lwin (L), State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (C), and Khan Thet Htay (R), wife of Vice President Myint Swe converse after an International Women's Day ceremony in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, Feb. 8, 2018. RFA

International Women’s Day was celebrated throughout Southeast Asia on Friday through peaceful processions calling for equal opportunities for all women and personal appeals for greater female involvement in politics in the traditionally conservative, male-dominated region.

While women in Myanmar, which is led by a prominent female leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, lamented their low representation in positions of power and the suffering of refugees from the country’s civil wars, activists in Cambodia were prevented from marching on Friday. In Vietnam, NGOs called attention to jailed women bloggers and journalists.

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8 to commemorate the movement for women’s rights.

Women, who comprise more than half of Myanmar’s population, occupy only 11.3 percent of the 433 seats in the lower house of parliament, and 12 percent of 224 seats in the upper house in the country led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the most visible female leader in Myanmar who also serves as foreign affairs minister.

Mya Lay Sein, deputy minister for health and sports, is the only woman in a top ministerial-level position, while at the regional level, two women serve as chief ministers, five as ethnic ministers, another five as township administrators, and 84 as village administrators.

“Myanmar women are not encouraged to participate in the positions that can make important decisions,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, Action Committee for Democracy Development. “People need to support women lawmakers. They can be trusted, but they are not trusted as much as they should be. Women also have many obstacles to do what they want to.”

women day, south east asian women
Myanmar activist Naw K’nyaw Paw speaks at the International Women of Courage awards ceremony at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2019. RFA

Ma Thida, a human rights activist, surgeon, writer and former prisoner agreed.

“As our society is weak in supporting women to become leaders, to accept as leaders, to respect women leaders, [women] can’t show their qualifications even if they reach higher level positions,” said the first elected president of PEN Myanmar who now serves as a board member of PEN International, a global organization that promotes freedom for writers.

“If women can work more in the administrative, judicial and legislative sectors, there will be more balance in these sectors,” said political analyst Yan Myo Thein.

“Also, the peace process could move faster if we use women’s initiative abilities,” he said, referring to the government’s efforts to end seven decades of armed conflict in Myanmar. “Men need to try to include women as participants.”

Myanmar Vice President Henry Van Thio pledged that the government would ensure that women make up 30 percent of the participants in every sector during an event marking International Women’s Day in Naypyidaw, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

The government is also implementing a national strategic plan that runs until 2022 for the advancement of women in the areas of livelihoods, education, health, and human rights, among others, it said.

As part of the plan, the government has created task forces to prevent violence against women and girls, help them participate in politics and business, promote gender equality in all sectors, and ensure peace and security for women, the article said.

Many ordinary women in Myanmar, especially those in rural areas with limited education, face gender discrimination in both the workplace and in society at large in the forms of abuse by partners or by soldiers in areas of armed conflict.

The obstacles for these women made even more difficult to surmount by a culture and tradition that hold that women are inferior to men and most should be relegated to being housewives and raising children.

“Women’s places in rural area are still in the back,” said Mi Ah Chai, an activist with the Mon Youth Association,” referring to their lack of leadership roles in male-dominated agrarian society. “There is no balance for them yet.”

“There are a lot of barriers for young women to work what they want for their future,” she said. “It is important for young women to have good support from men, like their fathers, brothers or friends, for raising their capacity building.”

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Cambodian police prevent women celebrating International Women’s Day from leaving Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, March 8, 2019. RFA

Human trafficking dangers in war zones

While women called for equal opportunity and gender balance at a public event marking International Women’s Day in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, others from some of the country’s war-torn ethnic regions underscored the physical dangers that women and children face in these areas.

Khun Ja, a leader of the Kachin Peace Network, a domestic NGO in northern Myanmar, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his group is working on a case in which a 13-year-old girl “was sold to China” on Thursday.

“This case shows women’s situation in ethnic areas, especially in conflict areas are worse [than elsewhere],” he said. “They don’t even have [basic] safety.  Not only their security but also their survival are still at risk, and their opportunities to participate in decision-making positions are far away.”

More than 107,000 civilians, including women and children have been displaced in Kachin and neighboring northern Shan state where the Myanmar Army is engaged in hostilities with ethnic armed groups or between different ethnic armies.

Human traffickers are known to operate in the border regions, such as that of Muse in Shan state, recruiting women as brides and birth surrogates for Chinese men through advertisements posted on the streets.

A day earlier in Washington, U.S. first lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saluted 10 woman from around the world as recipients of the International Women of Courage Award, including one from Myanmar and a Rohingya from Bangladesh.

Razia Sultana, a Bangladeshi Rohingya lawyer was honored in Washington for her “fearless efforts” to defend the Rohingya community in Myanmar by advocating for human rights for the Muslim refugees and documenting systematic sexual violence against women and girls.

Thousands of Rohingya women and girls suffered brutal sexual assaults at the hands of Myanmar military forces during a 2017 crackdown in northern Rakhine state that caused more than 730,000 members of the stateless and persecuted minority group to flee their homes and seek shelter in neighboring Bangladesh.

Now living in sprawling displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh, Rohingya women and girls are subject to sexual assaults by Rohingya men.

international women day, south east asian
International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8 to commemorate the movement for women’s rights. Pixabay

“[In] 2017, the world watched in horror as the Burmese army unleashed unspeakable crime, and this time against the Rohingya women, said Myanmar activist

Naw K’nyaw Paw, who was also honored at the event for her lifelong work condemning the military-led violence against the Rohingya people and helping to improve the lives of women and children in conflict-affected communities.

“Thousands of rapes have been documented from one ethnic nationality to another, and still these men run the country and control the lives of our people,” she said during a speech, imploring the world to take action to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Naw K’nyaw Paw, a rights worker with the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) who herself was born in a displaced persons camp after government soldiers destroyed more than 3,500 villages and killed thousands of people in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, said that many other women in other ethnic areas continue to suffer at the hands of the army.

“Women are either vulnerable to attacks or currently being attacked by the Burmese army,” she said. “It will not end until the world take action.

The KWO, which more than 60,000 members in refugee camps in Thailand, in internally displaced persons camps in Kayin state, and in villages across southeastern Myanmar, has documented the military’s abuse of Karen women in reports.

“We need the world to act as a united community to implement target sanctions against military and to have a body outside Burma to bring justice and to hold general accountable to these extreme human right violations,” Naw K’nyaw Paw said.

Lao women lack education, job opportunities

On International Women’s Day in neighboring Laos, women called for the government to improve basic living conditions and educational opportunities.

A teacher from southern Laos’ Savannakhet province RFA that she wants the government to raise the salaries of low-paid teachers, who sometimes go months without receiving their wages due to local government budget shortfalls.

She also asked for officials to consider giving teachers who must travel far to work places to live that are closer to their schools, and to ensure that schools have electricity and toilets.

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Aung San Suu Kyi, lamented their low representation in positions of power and the suffering of refugees from the country’s civil wars, activists in Cambodia were prevented from marching. Wikimedia

A woman from Khammouane province in the central part of the country said she also wants the government to create job opportunities for women because after it is difficult for them to find work after they finish school because most factories tern to hire men.

Another woman from Khammouane Province said she wanted the Lao Women’s Union Federation, which implements policies and laws related to the rights of women and children, women’s advancement, and gender equality, to find grant for women to study and up businesses to support their families.

“But so far nothing has happened,” she said.

In Cambodia, authorities restricted women rights activists from marching to the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh to deliver petitions, outlining several demands for improving their safety and work conditions.

Mostly female human rights activists, workers, union leaders, and NGO workers were confined to the Olympic Stadium in the capital to celebrate International Women’s Day and prevented from delivering their petitions which demanded several improvements for women.

More than 100 security personnel, including police, were deployed to block people as they tried to leave the stadium.

Authorities said they didn’t allow the march to the Council of Ministers because they were afraid of traffic chaos and social disorder.

Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) who attended the event, said people must not be denied their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

She also said that women should be encouraged and empowered so that they can fully and actively engage in all aspects of life.

Later on, Phnom Penh spokesman Meas Chanyada agreed to receive the petition and said he would submit it to the relevant state institutions by March 13.

In the document, the women called on the government to create community kindergartens and daycare centers at workplaces, build safe shelters for women and domestic workers who are victims of domestic violence, take measures to end sexual violence against women in the workplace and against female right activists, and prevent the exploitation, human trafficking, and modern-day slavery of migrant workers.

Land rights activists and victims of land grabs were not allowed to celebrate International Women’s Day events in five provinces, including Tbong Khmum and Kampong Speu.

Am Sam Ath, a senior official at domestic rights group Licadho, said people’s rights to assembly in Cambodia remain restricted.

“I think the authorities should encourage people to celebrate the event,” he said. “They should take the advantage of the opportunity to appreciate the issues women face and what they need instead of restricting their rights.”

Vietnam’s jailed journalists

Also on International Women’s Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) highlighted cases of female journalists jailed around the world in retaliation for their work, including Tran Thi Nga and Huynh Thuc Vy.

They are serving sentences in Vietnam for their reporting on human rights abuses and corruption, CPJ said.

Nga, who writes under the pen name Thuy Nga, is serving a nine-year sentence for spreading “propaganda against the state” after writing about abuses by authorities, including trafficking, the confiscation of land, and police brutality.

During a one-day trial prosecutors said she made videos on massive fish kill caused by water pollution from toxic industrial waste discharged by a steel plant, territorial disputes with China, and state, which were in violation of the law.

Can Thi Theu, a female rights activist jailed for 20 months for public disorder charges for protesting government-sanctioned evictions used to clear the way for commercial development, said Nga is not faring well in prison.

“Recently, a prisoner who was freed from Nga’s prison told me that Nga has to suffer much pressure from the guards,” she told RFA. “She has always been struggling even in the prison environment.”

Vy, a blogger and human rights advocate who frequently writes on political, environmental, and social issues, including the country’s political prisoners, was sentenced in late November 2018 to two years and nine months in prison for defacing a Vietnamese flag.

ALSO READ: Actress Vidya Balan Feels That Women Should Value Themselves Each Day

Authorities ordered her to be kept under house arrest until her elder child turn three years old, at which time she had to begin serving her jail term.

“Of course, no one who has kids wants to leave them,” she told RFA’s Vietnamese Service in November. “However long you have to serve the sentence, you lose the same period of time being far away from your children to bring them up. Such time is a waste.”

Vy said she did not file an appeal of her case because she knew that officials in Dak Lak province would force her to leave the country. (RFA)

Next Story

More And More Women Join The Arakan Army’s Fight Against Myanmar’s Central Government

“Only after we pass that step will we be able to achieve the goal of a federal union that guarantees equality among all ethnic groups,” she said

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Female Arakan Army recruits train with their male counterparts in northern Myanmar's Kachin state in an undated photo. RFA

The Arakan Army, which is battling the Myanmar military for autonomy in turbulent Rakhine state, has grown in both force strength and firepower since its formation in 2009 to the level that the rebel group can now launch successful offensives on police or military outposts. And its message is drawing as many young female recruits as men.

After hundreds of Arakan fighters carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine in early January, striking on Myanmar’s Independence Day, hostilities between the two sides escalated, prompting the government to brand the Arakan Army, commonly referred to as the AA, a terrorist group and to order its troops to eliminate it.

So far this year, the AA and Myanmar forces have engaged in more than 100 battles in Rakhine state.

The AA, which draws most of its recruits from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who support its mission, has trained with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another ethnic armed group that has fought government forces in Kachin and northern Shan states, at KIA headquarters in the remote mountainous town of Laiza, with AA soldiers playing a supporting role in those regions.

The AA engaged in its first real clash with Myanmar Army troops in March 2015 near Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township. It was one of three ethnic armies excluded from the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), which eight ethnic organizations signed, later that year.

Ethnic armies are known to exaggerate their member numbers, and AA leaders have refused to divulge the exact number of soldiers in its ranks. A January report on women in ethnic armies by the Norway-based Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), however, put the total number of both male and female AA troops at 1,000, while another report published the same month by the online journal The Irrawaddy put it at 7,000.

Like the national military and other ethnic armies in Myanmar, the AA is focusing its recruitment efforts on signing up young women to fortify its ranks and prepare them for future combat to fulfill the AA’s mission of self-determination for ethnic Rakhine people in Rakhine state.

There are now as many young women as there are male recruits training at a military facility in Laiza in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state near the border with China, signaling growing support for the rebel army among Rakhine civilians as the conflict intensifies.

Most of the young women training there are about 20 years old. RFA’s Myanmar Service has given them aliases because they declined to be identified by name while speaking on the record during a recent reporting trip to Kachin state, citing security and other reasons.

‘We want self-governance’

The female soldiers say they have been motivated to join the AA by the rebel force’s credo that armed revolution is the only way to achieve ethnic Rakhines’ goals of self-governance, self-determination, and equality in their state.

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“In the battles, they will not be spared because they are female,” he said. “They will be treated as enemies.” Pixabay

“We want self-governance,” said female recruit Hla Hla Kwye. “We can address our problems and decide what we need only when we have self-governance and self-determination. Now, it is all messed up since we are governed by others. We are discriminated against as if we are parented by a stepfather or a stepmother.”

She said she wants to deliver the “gift of independence” to her fellow ethnic Rakhines before 2020, so that they will no longer be “oppressed.”

“They will no longer be a second-class ethnic group,” Hla Hla Kwye said.

Others said they decided to join the AA to fight the ethnic-based discrimination and unfairness they face from the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the national military and the country’s ruling, civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Myo Myo Thet, a female recruit who has been stationed at AA headquarters since 2018, said this unfairness has been evident in the extraction of natural resources in Rakhine state.

“When we interacted with the environment, we came to realize that we only got unfair shares of profits from natural resources extracted from our own state,” she said. “So, I learned that an armed revolution is unavoidable in order to achieve a Rakhine Nation. I then pledged to become a female Rakhine soldier.”

Many ethnic Rakhines believe they have been sold short on benefits they should have received as part of the central government’s natural resources and infrastructure deals with Myanmar’s larger neighbors China and India — namely, dual pipelines that export their state’s oil and natural gas to China and a massive transportation corridor to ship cargo from India to Rakhine’s Sittwe seaport and then on to northeast India via river and highway routes.

Other female recruits said they have been motivated to join the AA by more practical reasons, namely lack of employment opportunities — especially for women — in the impoverished and underdeveloped state.

“Before, I liked to make myself look beautiful,” said recruit Soe Soe. “I liked to eat a lot and sleep a lot. I didn’t have any employment either. We had to go to Yangon to get a job. There are no job opportunities in Rakhine state. We only have chores like cooking and carrying water.”

After she joined the AA, Moe Moe found a job and learned how to make better use of her free time.

“I’ve learned how to spend time wisely — how to spend leisure time wisely,” she said. “I’ve been able to read books. Only here, I’ve learned that I should read books.”

Training female soldiers takes two months, during which time they are also required to learn skills such as office administration, management, accounting, and sewing.

Though she’s proud of her work with the AA, Soe Soe said she is ready to return home to be with her family.

“I want to go home,” she said. “But although I’m separated from my whole family, I’m proud that I’m now working for the sake of the entire Rakhine state.”