In Thailand, history was made when the Pheu Thai party’s landslide victory left Yingluck Shinawatra, a woman who had just recently entered politics, primed to become the country’s first female prime minister. Back in Burma, the woman who has been leading her country’s pro-democracy struggle for two decades appears unlikely to ever reach the same pinnacle of the political system.
Thailand’s political environment favored its first female prime minister-to-be. The election was free and fair, the ruling Democrat Party accepted defeat when it lost and the military promised not to proceed with a rumored coup.
In contrast, Aung San Suu Kyi was excluded from Burma’s 2010 election, which was anything but free and fair. When she and her party won the 1990 election in a landslide even greater than Pheu Thai’s, the military refused to honor the results, imprisoned Suu Kyi and began 20 years of oppression.
In both 1990 and 2010, the chance for Burma’s people to have a woman leader before Thailand was stolen from them by a clique of ruthless men with no compassion for their country’s citizens. In the 20 years in between the two “elections,” it became clear that the courage, confidence, commitment and compassion of a female opposition figure could not win out in Burma when the nation’s male leaders refused to give her an opportunity to compete on anything approaching a level playing field.
Among Burma’s 2,100 political prisoners, there are at least 145 female political activists serving lengthy terms. One of them, Nilar Thien, is a courageous activist and the wife of Kyaw Min Yu, who is a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, which joined the monks in leading the 2007 Revolution.
I spoke by telephone with Nilar Thein after she went into hiding following the 2007 uprising. At the time, she was the mother of a 4-month-old baby daughter who she left behind when the authorities began hunting her.
Nilar Thein had a choice about whether to stay away from politics in the interests of her family or join the movement to bring democracy to Burma. She was well aware of the risks — she had spent nearly nine years in prison in the 1990s — but still took the gamble of participating in the protests.
Sadly, she ultimately lost the bet. In September 2008, the junta tracked Nilar Thein down, and she is now serving a 65-year prison term in Thayet Prison in central Burma.
Looking back over the struggle of Burmese women in the modern era, many more deserve recognition. Their status in Burmese political society has been suppressed since shortly after the time the country achieved independence.
Even during the British colonial era, women in Burma had more rights than now. In 1929, Hnin Mya became the country’s first woman senator. In 1937, a distinguished female doctor named Saw Has was elected and given the prestigious civil honor “Member of the British Empire.” In 1953, five years after Burma gained its independence, the country had one female minister — Ba Maung Chain — who became the minister representing Karen State.
Since the time of the 1962 military coup staged by the late dictator Ne Win, though, the role of women in Burmese politics has been almost nonexistent, due primarily to the fact that each successive government has been led by military and ex-military men.
Even in the new “civilian” government, few women have had the opportunity to crack Burma’s iron ceiling. In the 2010 election, there were only 20 women among the 659 people elected to parliament, and 14 of those women belonged to the military-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The daughters of three former prime ministers, known as the “three princesses,” took part in the election, but each was defeated by a USDP candidate. Recently, all three said they would not contest a by-election slated to be held later this year, explaining that although they took part in the November 2010 election in the belief it would create political space, they didn’t see that happening once the new government was formed.
Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Suu Kyi or any of her female colleagues will take office or play a crucial role in Burma’s government in the foreseeable future. While their courage, confidence, commitment and compassion have won more than enough hearts and minds among the Burmese people to secure a landslide victory far exceeding Yingluck’s in Thailand, the insecure men who control Burma show no signs of allowing anyone outside their closed-minded clique to lead the nation.
The men in Naypyidaw have failed miserably and continue to run their country into the ground. It’s time for them to step aside and give the Lady a chance.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.