BRIEFING 174 / ASIA
Politics in Myanmar is traditionally the domain of older men, but women and youth have been prominent in resistance to the 2021 military takeover. Giving them a bigger voice could have a positive effect on the country’s political culture, no matter how the crisis ends.
What’s new? Young people, particularly young women, have been visible and important contributors to the anti-military resistance, challenging age and gender norms in patriarchal Myanmar society. Yet two years after the coup they remain largely excluded from formal political power, and their role in the opposition movement often goes unacknowledged.
Why does it matter? Older men have traditionally dominated Myanmar politics – Aung San Suu Kyi being a notable exception. Policy priorities are skewed to women’s and youth’s detriment. The outcome of Myanmar’s post-coup crisis is uncertain, but changing norms within the anti-military resistance may well shape politics and society more broadly.
What should be done? The parallel National Unity Government should move beyond tokenism to genuinely include women and youth from diverse backgrounds in decision-making to build its credibility and break down patriarchal barriers. Donors should increase support for women- and youth-led organisations, while anti-regime armed groups should review the gendered way they assign recruits.
I. Overview A young generation, particularly women, are at the forefront of Myanmar’s armed and non-violent resistance to the 2021 coup d’état, challenging longstanding age and gender norms and hierarchies. Post-coup opposition movements have created opportunities for these people to take on roles that earlier were off limits. Their power within the movements remains limited, however, and intensified fighting in much of the country further jeopardises it. The National Unity Government and other anti-regime forces have strong normative reasons to address this problem. They would also gain from doing so, in that otherwise they may lose core supporters’ sympathies. They should do more to deepen inclusion, particularly of women and youth from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Armed groups should move from assigning people to posts based on gender, possibly by giving both men and women more choice in how they are deployed. No end is in sight to Myanmar’s crisis and its outcome is far from clear, but changing norms within the resistance are likely to influence the country’s politics and society over time.
Prior to the coup, political power in Myanmar lay almost exclusively in the hands of older men. Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) leader ousted by the coup, was a notable exception, in part because she is Western-educated and the daughter of independence leader Aung San. There was progress toward greater inclusivity during the ten years of semi-civilian rule, between 2011 and 2021, but deeply entrenched conservative attitudes and practical barriers erected during half a century of military dictatorship served to keep most women and young people out of formal politics. In some respects, the NLD was even less inclusive than its predecessor, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, to the disappointment of activists, civil society figures and some within the party itself.
The coup has helped bring to the fore a new generation, who were instrumental in launching what they call the Spring Revolution in its aftermath, organising nationwide demonstrations, strikes and boycotts. This younger cohort, including Generation Z and millennials, came of age during the decade of semi-civilian governance and has refused to accept a return to military rule. Their views only hardened as the regime brutally cracked down on their largely peaceful protests. From martyred demonstrators to striking garment workers and teachers leading the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), they have been a powerful symbol of resistance to the junta. They have used their position to challenge traditional age and gender norms and push a progressive agenda, particularly in the political sphere.
Although these youngsters are the driving force of the movement, they have limited clout in its internal councils. Over time, the more inclusive facets of the revolution, such as street protests and the CDM, have lost influence to newly formed armed resistance groups, which are focused on fighting. Not surprisingly, the division of labour within these groups’ ranks is heavily gendered. Although women are often active participants behind the scenes – for example, crafting homemade weapons or raising money – their contributions often go unrecognised.
Although featuring a significant number of ex-NLD figures, the new anti-regime political structures, such as the National Unity Government (NUG) and National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), are more diverse than the NLD-era government and parliament. Diversity is more evident in terms of ethnicity than age or gender, however. Although the NUG has several women ministers, most of the top positions remain held by older men. The same is true of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, which predate the military takeover but whose sway has grown in the post-coup conflict. Apart from cultural attitudes that favour older male leaders, socio-economic factors remain a barrier to broader inclusion, particularly for women.
Meanwhile, the military regime has closed off what few opportunities existed for younger people, and women of all ages, to exercise political leadership. The junta is dominated by serving and former military officers, making it highly unrepresentative of Myanmar society, and all indications are that general elections planned for late 2023 or early 2024 will bring only cosmetic change. Despite the junta’s claims to the contrary, the vote is intended to entrench military control of nominally civilian structures, such as the national assembly. Directly or indirectly, power will still reside in the military elite, most of whom are older Burman men, possibly with token inclusion of ethnic minorities and women.
With the armed struggle gaining momentum from mid-2021, progress toward greater inclusivity has largely stalled within the resistance. Civil society leaders and foreign technical advisers can provide support, but senior opposition members in bodies such as the NUG will need to throw weight behind any effort to jumpstart such change. Doing so matters not just for the immediate term: while it is far from clear how the tragedy currently befalling Myanmar will shape its future, evolving age and gender norms in the resistance could have a positive lasting impact on Myanmar politics and society. Even beyond important normative concerns, NUG leaders would gain by including women and young people in political decision-making and listening to their perspectives; failure to do so could alienate important sources of support. Meanwhile, civil society groups and NGOs, primarily from Myanmar, should engage the armed resistance – including ethnic armed groups – in discussions about injecting a gender dimension into their own policies, such as by degendering job assignments and addressing harassment.
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