Beyond Aung San Suu Kyi: Where are all the women leaders in Myanmar?

Editor’s note: Htet is currently a final year student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, USA, majoring in Economics and Political Science. She was a visiting student at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, reading Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Htet is from Yangon, Myanmar.

The face of politics in Myanmar is a woman. Scrap that. The face of Myanmar is a woman. Both inside and outside Myanmar, the most well-known and well-respected Burmese citizen is a woman. From Yangon to Taunggyi, from tea shops to living rooms, posters and calendars of Aung San Suu Kyi are ubiquitous in Myanmar. Likewise, for any foreigner who has heard of Myanmar, they are more likely than not to refer to it as “the country where Aung San Suu Kyi is from.”

Given her fame, the sanctity of her name, and the power she currently has by being ‘above the president,’ it can be easy to assume that there are no limits to what a woman can achieve in Myanmar. Just like Aung San Suu Kyi, any woman in Myanmar, given that she is as capable and driven, should be able to get elected into parliament, lead the incumbent political party, or hold a cabinet position so that she too can shape public policy.

The reality, however, is far away from that. Recently, the cabinet ministers of the new government were named. How many women are among the eighteen ministers? One. Who is the one woman that manages to be in the cabinet? Aung San Suu Kyi.

This gender disparity is extremely disappointing and particularly puzzling because the decisions were made primarily by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. I am not just arguing that Aung San Suu Kyi, as a female policy maker in Myanmar, should be empowering other female policy makers. Although I firmly believe that she should be, there are more fundamental reasons for my disappointment.

As the leader of a political party that advocates for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has the responsibility to nominate a cabinet that represents the electorate. Last November, the overwhelming majority of the electorate, both men and women, elected the NLD into power. They woke up at dawn, waited in line at the voting booths for hours, and enthusiastically exercised their right to vote. The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi have a responsibility to these citizens to form a government that will represent them all. However, for anyone hoping that this new government will spearhead a positive political and cultural shift in terms of gender equality, the NLD-dominated cabinet is a letdown.

When it comes to gender equality in public policy, Myanmar already has a lot of work to do. It lags behind all other ASEAN countries in terms of the percentage of women in parliament. Less than 10 percent of the MPs in the recently elected parliament are female. Very few women got to sit at the table during the negotiations for the national ceasefire agreement. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership had a great opportunity to reform this situation and name a gender-inclusive cabinet.

The fact that they spectacularly failed to do so is an inexcusable disappointment. It was not the case that the NLD could not find any qualified women. Looking at the profiles of the chosen cabinet ministers, I could think of women who are equally (if not more) qualified both in terms of education and experience and some of them are from the NLD. Furthermore, given the fake education credentials that some cabinet nominees hold, it is even harder to understand why these qualified women were left out.The NLD leadership should give an explanation to its supporters for why this happened and how they plan to improve on it in the future. If the NLD truly stands for a democratic political system led by a government ‘by the people, for the people,’ its leadership should care that half of the country’s population is very poorly represented in government.

In response to criticisms over the cabinet nominees, Mr. Tun Tun Hein, a spokesperson for the NLD, said “I don’t think we have to explain ourselves every time complaints come up. There will always be people who hold different opinions.” Yes, there will always be people who hold different opinions. In a democracy, these people will contest and criticize the decisions made by the government. That’s exactly why the political party in power should be transparent about why they make the choices they make. Welcome to a democracy.