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Op-Ed: How women are defying Myanmar’s junta with sarongs and cellphones

A line of sarongs cordons off a road.
Sarongs strung up on a street in Yangon, Myanmar, to deter military troops from entering the area.
(The Irrawaddy)

The Myanmar military fears menstrual blood. The troops believe that passing under clothing that has touched women’s private parts will sap hpoun — their spiritual energy — to destroy their luck, especially in battle.

In searing heat, threatened by tear gas and bullets, women in Myanmar are exploiting this male superstition, stringing up used sanitary pads and colorful longyi sarongs across neighborhood streets.

The defensive perimeters have deterred many soldiers, at least long enough for women to hide, a colleague told us on a cellphone call last week. The previous night in Sanchaung, a township in the capital city Yangon, she said military troops barricaded the streets, screaming at trapped female protesters: “Whore, when I find you, I’m going to rape you!”

In daily trans-Pacific calls with women in Yangon, we hear gunfire. “Nothing is safe,” one woman told us. “As a mom, I know my children can be orphans anytime. But we rally for a better future. The military is a monster we don’t want to transfer to the next generation.”

Last week, the military-run MRTV network broadcast the message that the women’s sarong campaign was hurting Buddhism. Over the weekend, more demonstrators were shot and killed in the streets. The crackdowns have killed more than 180 people since the military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized control of the country in a coup on Feb. 1. There is not yet a tally of women who have been brutalized or raped by troops.

Hundreds of thousands of women are on the frontlines in the battle against the junta, organizing with the tools they have: smartphones, sarongs, menstrual blood. Some are making shields from tires and barrels, cutting rubber and steel with kitchen knives, using patterns that have been posted online by other women.

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The coup threatens to destroy women’s recent gains in a society that has long excluded them from the formal economy and leadership in business and government. That is also why millions of women — bank clerks, civil servants, teachers, grocery workers and laborers who enable society to function — are pivotal in the continuing nationwide strike to protest the dictatorship.

Nine years ago, when Pwint — as an advisor to Myanmar’s Central Bank — drafted the regulations that underpin Myanmar’s mobile financial services industry, the dream was for every village woman, landless farmer and street peddler to be digitally connected to their communities and the internet so they could lift themselves up.

Since then, Myanmar’s smartphone revolution has unfurled swiftly with inexpensive cellphones and data charges. Once the world’s least-connected country, it now has more SIM cards than its 54 million people. Village women use smartphones to make transactions; rural entrepreneurs now market their products, like sun-dried fish, on the web. During the pandemic, out-of-work garment workers pivoted to selling home-sewn masks through e-commerce. The technology also allows women to deposit money in their own digital wallets, preventing abusive husbands from misusing their money.

Now, digital technology is being used to fight the regime. The military violently quashed the people’s bid for democracy in 1988, then again in 2007. This year, the hope and atrocities repeat — with one significant difference: The people have smartphones.

Though the Tatmadaw’s channels have spread hatred against ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, connectivity has also helped people surmount geographic, educational and social barriers in a nation where only 100 of 17,000 village leaders are women.

Young and old are now organizing on digital platforms to resist the coup, while digital activists are racing to find workarounds as the military works to block internet access.

Hill tribe grandmas shuffle on dusty roads holding cardboard signs saying, “The dictators must fall before I die,” and their images spread across social media. Supporters around the globe can now watch what is happening in Myanmar, and protesters can receive messages of support in ways unimaginable a decade ago.
For more than 60 years, Myanmar has been subjugated by illegitimate military rulers, whose crimes were hidden from the eyes of the world. The junta is trying to crush a new generation, but this time, the world can witness its aggression against civilians in real time.

Women from all strata in Myanmar are risking their lives to declare that they will not go back to living in fear under malignant despots. What they need is strong and unflinching international support, including from the Biden administration and the United Nations, in demanding a democracy with equal rights, citizenship for all ethnic and religious communities, and an end to military impunity.

Stability and prosperity in Myanmar depend on shifting power from tyrants with guns to women with smartphones.

Pwint Htun, an electrical engineer and telecommunications executive, is a co-founder of Mobilizing Myanmar, a nonprofit initiative working to lift women out of poverty. She grew up in rural Myanmar and was granted political asylum in the U.S. after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Paula Bock, also a co-founder of Mobilizing Myanmar, leads its strategy and communications.


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