Disappointing Progress on an Important Debate: Response to “The Myth Myanmar can Afford to Ditch”

May Thu Khine adds to the discussion on gender equality in Myanmar.

Editor’s Note: The following is a response to a recent opinion piece by Brandon Aung Moe on Tea Circle. In light of responses to this post (both directly to our blog and circulating on social media and on other blogs), we invite readers to view an updated version of our submissions policy and to consider submitting their own responses. We also invite you to read some previous Tea Circle posts on issues related to women and women’s rights here, here, here and here.

In a recent post on Tea Circle, Ko Brandon Aung Moe asserts that the notion of the disempowered Burmese woman is a myth that Myanmar can afford to ditch. He argues that it gets perpetuated by both locals and foreigners who have not thoroughly inspected the issue of women’s rights in Myanmar, particularly during this period of Myanmar’s reintegration into the global community.

While I appreciate and agree with Ko Aung Moe’s apt sense that Burmese women are traditionally empowered, financially savvy, and efficient care-takers of the household, he has got it wrong that Myanmar today has achieved gender equality, and we can therefore move on from this much-needed discussion on gender and sexual identity rights. Unfortunately, there is much, much more work to be done for gender equality and basic rights for different identity groups in Myanmar.

My disagreement with Ko Aung Moe’s position begins from the very understanding of Myanmar’s context. In Ko Aung Moe’s worldview, Myanmar has always had a long history as an isolated patch on the world’s map until the last five years, which is how the foreigners in Myanmar today misinterpret the context of Burmese women, and locals perpetuate these misinterpreted views. My understanding of Myanmar is that the considerable detachment and isolation that the country is known for is a recent phenomenon, true only for the past five decades. As far as the existence of statehood goes, Myanmar (or the territories constituting today’s Myanmar) has had remarkable exposure to the outside world, and Yangon itself was an incredibly cosmopolitan city, until the socialist government’s policies took effect in the sixties.

Since Ko Aung Moe brought up the Kingdom of Ava in the late 18th century to establish then-Burma’s detachment from global trade, I would like to call to his attention that Burma by then already had trade relations with countries as far away as Portugal for about two centuries, since the reigns of Mrauk-U’s Minbin, and Toungoo’s Tabin-Shwe-Hti. Today in Lisbon, in front of the Monument of the Discoveries, still stands a world map listing Portuguese first contact with various civilizations, including “Pegu 1511” firmly inscribed on the marble map. The Court of Ava employed hundreds of Armenians, who had emigrated from Persia in the early 1600s and whose descendants had gone on to establish such businesses as The Strand Hotel, or Balthazar family offices, renting space to the likes of Siemens.

Additionally, when I was a Myanmar-language walking tour leader, I would stop by Yangon’s Port Authority to note that this port in the early 1920s used to be the second busiest, just after New York City. The fact that Nga-Zin-Ga was a Portuguese man who served as the governor or “Kalar-Wun” of today’s Thanlyin in the 1500s; the fact that one can see the beautiful fusion of traditional ornamental elements on an otherwise classical Corinthian column at the Rakhine merchant association’s tazaung on Shwedagon’s precincts; or the fact that the fruit “papaya” – while never seen in Bagan era inscriptions – is known and loved locally as “a fruit that comes on a boat” all are overlooked tidbits pointing to a cultural evolution. They are also evidence that the Burmese often do a fairly decent job accepting new cultures and people, and Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation is only a recent measure. For this reason, the locals like myself, who happen to agree with the foreign aid workers or journalists about the changing roles and needs of Burmese women, are perhaps worth listening to.

One of these urgent needs is a legislative update.  Much of the gender-specific legal guidance comes from an 1860 Penal Code, which does not address marital rape, or enable women (or men) to seek protective or restraining orders. The legal enforcement body is neither trained nor equipped to deal with women (or men) seeking support in case of sexual assault, and instead quotes the colloquial saying, “kyee-thaw-ahmu-nge-say, nge-thaw-ahmu-papyout-say,” meaning that the goal of a police officer is to reduce the gravity of a severe case, and do away with a small case altogether. In practice, this means that female victims in sexual assault cases are often dissuaded from pressing charges, which should strike any modern reader as a fairly egregious case of gender imbalance. A recent Myanmar Now article quotes the national police records of 700 rape cases in Myanmar last year. Assuming that only the most severe cases got reported in Myanmar last year, a comparable data point for England and Wales is 40,675 most severe cases. It stands to reason that either severe sexual assault is more pervasive in modern British society than Myanmar’s, or that the rape cases in Myanmar are severely underreported and the judicial infrastructure is painfully inefficient. I think I will go with the latter.

Another indicator of a severe violation of gender-based rights is an absence of legal remedies for the men and women in abusive relationships at home. Domestic violence is neither socially recognized nor legally envisaged. There are no legal provisions for a victim of domestic violence to break a tenancy agreement and walk away from an unsafe environment, for instance. Revenge porn is not deterred under the current legal guidance. Myanmar is unique in Southeast Asia for still not having a legal framework against domestic violence. While the Burmese language barely has a recognizable term for domestic violence, its neighbors, Cambodia and Thailand, passed legislation to combat domestic violence more than a decade ago, in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

According to the Penal Code, customary laws based on a given couple’s religion may guide the settlement of any marital disputes or divorce. This does not provide for equal protection for women or men of different faiths in Myanmar. To give a Buddhist example, a Buddhist wife may be obligated by Dhamma-that (Buddhist customary law), which technically gives the husband authority to physically “but lightly” punish the wife with a light cane. While having to legally declare one’s faith to the state is already an outdated concept, a severe lack of protection against domestic violence, and lack of process for an equitable dissolution of marriages, seems to be a massive legislative void that Myanmar cannot afford to ignore. As a Myanmar woman, I do not want to be guided by a Penal Code that is older than the invention of the zipper, the ballpoint pen, or the remote control. Myanmar’s legislation for gender-based rights needs an urgent update.

Reproductive health measures go hand-in-hand with social acceptance and a lack of basic gender-based rights in legislation. Reproductive health education is still considered taboo, mainly due to norms surrounding the control of a woman’s body. Women are less likely to seek information on sexual health when they are still expected to preserve virginity until marriage, while the same expectation is nonexistent for men. A Myanmar woman can access sterilization only with her husband’s signature. Most young Myanmar women, even in the most developed city like Yangon, are not receiving HPV vaccinations, which in many modern clinics are still reserved for married women. In 2015, the Myanmar government decided to ban the sale of birth control and contraceptives, including condoms, ahead of Thingyan Water Festival as a way to tackle unwanted sexual activity, which again seems to be an outdated measure stemming from a rigid adherence to traditional notions of a woman’s role and her ability to make choices about her own body.

Yet, the sexual activity seems to be there; while the data is difficult to come by on this front, we can deduce that sexual activity exists from the fact that many women seem to suffer from labor complications and preventable causes of death. Childbirth remains the most prominent cause of death for women in Myanmar, according to the Central Statistical Organization. The UNFPA data suggests that the maternal mortality rate is the second highest in ASEAN, ranging geographically from 230 to 580 cases per 100,000 live births, and averaging about 280 per 100,000 live births. Rectovaginal fistula (a very serious condition in women) is not well cared for, and I have seen a man make fun of a woman suffering from rectovaginal fistula in a village in Myanmar.

Lack of access to reproductive health information and contraception, is again a symptom of gender inequality. Instead of making it difficult to access modern contraception and family planning tools and knowledge, and then later punishing women with inadequate health care provisions for labor complications, how about we empower women to make choices for themselves? Instead of shaming a young unmarried woman in a rural village for an unwanted pregnancy and holding her to a double standard, while the man responsible for the pregnancy is not held to the same degree of accountability, how about we educate her about her body and safe options? The social pressure behind reproductive health suggests that the root cause of the problem is not simply a sign of difficult times, as Ko Aung Moe has asserted. Shocking health statistics reveal that a debate on gender inequality is not something modern Myanmar can afford to ignore.

Lastly, I would like to point to a certain sexist attitude that exists day-to-day. While Myanmar women do not need to change their last name upon getting married, as Ko Aung Moe has pointed out, Myanmar women are still identified in relation to their father on official papers. As a BBC article from awhile back makes the case, Burmese papers seem to be editing out the umbrellas being held by male subordinates for female politicians, because a reverse in traditional gender power structure is simply unsettling for many in Myanmar. The Burmese phrase for being petty is known as “main-malo, main-maya,” which is to say “like a woman,” thus effectively reducing half of Myanmar’s population to a petty bunch.  With this baseline attitude for women, it is not surprising that at my job, my colleagues would criticize in whispers a senior female executive for seating herself on the top row of a work forum, while her male counterpart was seen as rightly taking his position there. It is not surprising that when I meet with a film crew for a TV ad, my (male) Swiss intern is asked to stand in for an executive role while I am asked to be his secretary, even when I am the one handling the crew’s account. In such a society, it is not surprising that women are underrepresented in politics and business. In such a society, only one respectable woman makes it to the board seat of all public companies listed on Yangon Stock Exchange.

Again, I agree with Ko Aung Moe in that Burmese women can be empowered, strong, and feisty. Women and single mothers I have met throughout rural Myanmar are a resilient, entrepreneurial bunch, defying the harshest conditions, severe weather and inefficient economic policies for many decades. Yet, while Ko Aung Moe, with his reasonable and strong mother, has been fortunate to be sheltered from the deleterious effects of Myanmar’s legal failings, this is not the case for many women in Myanmar today. Local activists such as Ma Cheery Zahau of Women’s League for Chinland, Ma Htar Htar and Ma Win Win Khaing of Akhayar, or Ma May Sabei Phyu and Aunty Pansy Tun Thein of Gender Equality Network, work directly with women suffering from gender-based violence and often speak up about and attest to the depth and nuances of gender inequality in Myanmar. I do not agree that these locals are simply downplaying Burmese-style women’s empowerment, as Ko Aung Moe has mistakenly suggested.

If anything, the debate on gender equality is slowing down, instead of making progress. A discourse on gender should go beyond women’s rights, and encompass sexual identity rights, including LGBT rights and even include problems male victims face in gender-based violence. Instead of making progress on such fronts, Myanmar’s government recently enacted  an interfaith marriage ban, which restricts women’s ability to make choices and treats women as inept beings who cannot think for themselves. The inspiration behind the ban, according to the monk Wirathu, is the protection of women. The chairperson of the Theravada Dhamma Network has said, “Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”  While draft bills on violence against women have been in the making for more than five years, there are more restrictions now on women’s ability to make choices for themselves.

Therefore, while I appreciate the positive sentiments behind Ko Aung Moe’s recent post, I have to argue that Myanmar society cannot afford to ignore rights based on gender and sexual identity while reintegrating into the global community, after five unfortunate decades of isolation.

Born and raised in Yangon, May Thu Khine started her career as a fundraiser for New York City-based Girls Inc. She has since worked at Proximity Designs and Yoma Strategic Holdings, and is currently pursuing her MBA in London.