Suu Kyi’s victory and women’s empowerment in Myanmar

by Fitri Bintang Timur

Myanmar’s Election Commission announced last week the landslide victory of the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) party, winning 43 out of 44 parliamentary seats (97 percent) in the by-elections of April 1.

After the television announced the triumph, rapturous crowds thronged the streets yelling Aung San Suu Kyi’s name.

The victory will not result in more power for the NLD but it was taken seriously by supporters of Suu Kyi because it finally gave her a seat representing the Irrawaddy Delta area in Kamwoo, south of Rangoon.

The NLD secured only around 7 percent of the total votes in Myanmar’s bicameral House of Representatives. Nonetheless, like the crowd, the international community has also welcomed the result.

The European Union is reviewing its sanctions imposed on Myanmar, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) directly endorsed lifting its economic sanctions. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that the removal of sanctions is a “democratic dividend” for the changes that took place in the country.

The ASEAN chairmanship for this year, Cambodia, also urged the international community to lift economic sanctions.

“So that people in Myanmar can enjoy better opportunities to realize their aspirations for peace, national reconciliation, democracy and national development,” said Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in a statement at the opening of the ASEAN Summit on April 2.

The US Secretary of State conditionally welcomed the victory. “It is too early to know what the progress of recent months means and whether it will be sustained,” Hillary Clinton said of the election results.

The wait-and-see position taken by the US is not at all surprising, taking into account that the NLD had a substantial triumph in the 1990 election but still the military junta did not recognize the result.

Despite the skepticism, Myanmar’s political reform is entering its second year after the 2010 election transformed the military regime into a quasi-civilian government.

Now, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein has retired and become a civilian president, hundreds of political prisoners have been freed and media restrictions have been eased.

Yet, there is no guarantee that these changes are meaningful and lasting. There are still political prisoners in jail, media censorship and ceasefire agreements with ethnic insurgents that have not yet addressed the conflicts’ root causes.

With the euphoria of Suu Kyi entering parliament, the big question is whether she can influence further reform, bringing improvement to the day-to-day lives of the Myanmarese people in general and women in particular.

The state-sanctioned Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation claimed that women in the country enjoy the same rights as men due to the absence of purdah (veiling), headscarves, child betrothal, widow immolation, foot-binding, femicide and other disabilities suffered by women in the region (Khin Ayw Win, in notes of Seminar of Understanding Myanmar, 2004, p.108).

On the surface, this seems true following the Suu Kyi victory. Nonetheless, in political and security realms, the reality is somewhat different.

Based on the UN Women’s 2012 Inter-Parliamentary Union report, Myanmar’s female participation in parliament ranked 134 out of 143 countries. No women have been selected to hold any of the 50 ministerial positions.

The country’s upper house only has 1.8 percent women, while the lower house scores better with 3.5 percent female participation, amounting overall to 2.7 percent of female representation in the parliament. In Southeast Asia, this number is very small compared to Singapore’s 20 percent, Indonesia’s 18 percent and Thailand’s 15.6 percent.

Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, obviously promotes women as leaders. It put up 12 women for parliamentary seats in the recent by-elections, whereas the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) only nominated four.

It needs to be remembered that USDP is able to enlist a greater number of women via organizations such as the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation that is similar to Indonesia’s Dharma Wanita in the past, composed of the wives of civil servants and the military.

The lack of women in Myanmarese politics thus creates a chilling effect in its security sector. Women from minority groups in conflict areas find it difficult to take part in ceasefire negotiations as has been experienced by Karen Women’s Organization, while the women refugees of Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon live in relocation centers set up by the military with minimum protection from sexual and gender based violence.

On the issue of rape cases perpetuated by the military which had been highlighted by several Myanmarese women’s organizations in exile, the government provided a solution by preparing a military conscription law to include women.

Both men and women will be subject to military conscription for two to five years, with imprisonment for those who refuse to join up.

The objective of more women in the military is to make military institutions more gender equal and better able to protect women in the community. However, this outcome is highly unlikely without military reform.

Suu Kyi did not address the issue of women in her victory speech but rather welcomed all parties to join the process of bringing peace to Myanmar by supporting national reconciliation. She also stated that her short-term aims are to end ethnic conflicts and reform the country’s institutions.

All this is understood, since the Myanmarese still have many challenges to overcome in this political transformation, but it is also important that gender equality does not slip off the agenda.

The writer is an associate research fellow for S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Published in Jakarta Post, 11 April 2012

Re-published in Malaysian Insider, 11 April 2012

Re-published in Pakistan Observer, 16 April 2012

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