Women on the frontline of anti-junta resistance
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Women on the frontline of anti-junta resistance

Female anti-junta protesters Esther Ze Naw and Ma Ei Thinzar Maung lead a rally to protest the military coup in Yangon last year. Despite the danger, women have been at the forefront of the protest movement, rebuking the generals who ousted a female civilian leader. (Photo: The New York Times)
Female anti-junta protesters Esther Ze Naw and Ma Ei Thinzar Maung lead a rally to protest the military coup in Yangon last year. Despite the danger, women have been at the forefront of the protest movement, rebuking the generals who ousted a female civilian leader. (Photo: The New York Times)

One woman fled with her army officer husband who defected after the military coup of Feb 1, 2021, to Myanmar's borderlands. A mother prays for the safety of her son fighting the army with the People's Defence Forces (PDFs). An entrepreneur uses her business acumen to raise funds for the anti-military struggle while an activist helps women affected by conflict.

In a multitude of ways, Myanmar women from diverse backgrounds have filled various roles across different fronts of ongoing resistance to the military who seized power in this country with a population of more than 55 million people.

Below, some of these women tell their stories, in their own words.

'We don't have money, but are safer'

Thazin, 41, is the wife of an anti-junta soldier who defected from the military after serving for 21 years. Thazin's family has moved four times since her husband's defection. He had been a middle-ranking officer. She now lives in an ethnic-army held area of Myanmar, where her husband has helped train PDF units. Her two older daughters, aged 17 and 16, have also undergone combat training.

This is her story in her own words:

"After the coup, my husband told me that he would leave the military. At first, I was really afraid and didn't accept his decision, because we have three children. But I realised that he didn't feel comfortable and safe anymore.

"I (now) consider wherever we live together as my home. We have faced many challenges. We were being suspected of being informers at first. So we had to build mutual respect in any place we moved to. So sometimes I wanted to cry, but later they believed us and welcomed us warmly. Now I feel at ease, and understand more of our country's real situation.

"Before the coup, we had to be fearful of higher-ranking officers. Now we live securely in the people's embrace. Villagers send us all kinds of food, like rice, oil, vegetables... We don't have any money but we can survive happily and are safer than before.

"As the wife of a CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement) soldier, I'll follow what he decides. I'll support him in any way that I can.

"Even my two daughters are contributing to the revolution. They are now used to the sound of bombs and gunshots. They say that they are eager to fight. I'm really proud of my daughters, but sometimes I feel sorry that they are facing this dark age."

'I wait for my son to come home'

Wa Toke, 56, is a mother whose son is with the armed resistance. She has been struggling to make ends meet in Yangon, taking sewing work despite health challenges. This has been her situation since her 23-year-old son, who used to help her sell clothes and other items, left to join the PDF.

This is her story:

"These days, everybody is struggling and facing every kind of challenge. As for me, I'm the only breadwinner for my family. So I have to continue (to survive) for my family.

"At first, I didn't allow him (my son) and forbade him from joining the PDF. But I finally let him go because he was eager to go... I can only pray for him from home. I am on edge (when seeing) news about the fighting.

"Our family is being watched (by township authorities and the police). They always wait and see what we are doing. So I don't let my son's friends come to my home. I don't want to put them in danger.

"The only thing I worry about is my youngest son's safety. I'm relieved when he calls me. I'm proud of my son, but I feel sorry and worry for him. In this revolution, even though the military has many weapons, we'll win in the end. I keep my spirits up and wait for my son to come home."

'I want to do something daily for this revolution'

Nai, 38, was a Yangon floral shop owner, who now raises funds for those in the CDM and the anti-junta militia. Nai was a regular in the street demonstrations that erupted after the coup. In July 2021, police and soldiers raided her apartment and that of her neighbours. "But fortunately I was not there," she recalls. After seeking shelter with relatives and friends in the city, she later moved to a liberated area in central Kayin State.

This is her story:

"After the coup, I had to close my shop and I haven't had a chance to earn any money (for myself). I can't support my parents, and I had to move nine times. Even in my dreams, I'm running away. Insecurity is the biggest challenge for me these days.

"I want to do something daily for this revolution. As I have some experience in sewing, I'm sharing this skill with CDM teachers in the border area, with the help of non-governmental organisations. I get depressed when I'm not doing anything. As I used to own a flower shop, I also earn some money from selling some flowers so I can donate that to the PDF people, but it is not much. I'm also selling CDM products (those that anti-coup groups make to get some income) online.

"We have an uncertain future but the whole country faces this too. For me, the only answer to solve these problems is revolution. From my experience, I'm more mature than before and now understand well what empathy means."

'The biggest fear is fear'

Nu, 61, is a volunteer who supports women in conflict areas. There have been more cases of violence against women since the coup, including in conflict-affected communities, says Nu, based in Shan State. In rural areas, some of these are perpetrated by soldiers and others by residents. She has helped in cases of sexual abuse and rape, including trying to get offenders such as soldiers disciplined.

This is her story:

"We all are struggling under the unstable political situation and the pandemic. We live with insecurity, economic problems, and the biggest challenge is the fear related to the political landscape. Local people have been killed by airstrikes, landmines, by atrocities, including in ethnic areas. Brutal clashes have left families without heads of households. So, women have to face more difficulties than before.

"Even though we all have these fears, we have to help each other. If somebody asks for help, I cannot ignore that. I am being watched by the military. I'm afraid, but I'm still helping in women's cases.

"We live with fear due to the current political situation. I really hope for the day we all can live without fear... I don't know exactly when, but I believe we will, in the end, reach the moment of victory."

Ko Thet Paing is a Yangon-based writer for the Reporting ASEAN series. Interviewees' names have been changed for safety reasons. Interviews were originally done in Burmese. The article marks International Women's Day that is concurrent on March 8, every year.

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