‘I Dream of a Democratization in Myanmar where Women and Ethnic Minorities are Not Marginalized’
An Interview with Myanmar Youth Feminist Nandar
*“Harita’s Meetings that Cross Borders” series: Harita is an interdisciplinary artist based in Germany. She is conducting a series of interviews with women who cross the boundaries of gender, sexuality, country of origin, race, religion, and class.
On February 1, an inescapable nightmare began
An apartment in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday, February 1. Nandar woke up in the morning and checked her cell phone, but there was no signal. The data communication network had been cut off. She had a gut feeling that something terrible had happened. There were times when the Wi-Fi didn't work, but the data connection had never gone down before. She couldn't watch the news on the Internet or call anyone, so she looked out of the window to the streets. People were rushing back and forth hoarding things. She found herself stuck to the window. Soon, a large number of army trucks passed by. The national anthem echoed and there were broadcasts commemorating the ‘victory.’ Her body reacted first before she could organize her thoughts. She shuddered and a sense of fear came over her.
The curfew began immediately that day. Was the military dictatorship that her parents' generation had endured beginning again? The feeling of being deprived of safety and freedom led to a sense of helplessness. The changes that she thought she had made with so many people through the feminist movement over so many years suddenly seemed to have been all in vain. "Was gender equality possible under a dictatorship?" She couldn't work because she was discouraged. Most of all, it was too dangerous to run feminist education programs and produce podcasts as usual. The military government behind the coup could lock up prominent activists under any pretext.
Instead, Nandar went out to protest every day. The daily routine of waking up in the morning, going to the rally after a quick breakfast, and coming back around 3 p.m. continued for a while. As she chanted slogans for democracy with countless other citizens on the streets, she felt hope of driving away the military coup.
This is the story told by Nandar, a feminist activist currently participating in Myanmar's civil disobedience movement. Nandar was born in 1995 to an ethnic-minority Nepalese family in the Mansam region of northern Myanmar, and was raised there. Before becoming a full-time activist, she taught children for three years at a monastic education institution run by an ethnic minority nonprofit organization.
Nandar translated and published a Burmese version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book We Should All Be Feminists, and in 2018, she participated as a project manager and actor in the premiere of Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues in Myanmar. She also founded the ‘Purple Feminist Group’, a feminist organization, and was leading various campaigns and educational programs on issues such as menstruation rights, abortion rights, and anti-sexual violence. She was also making two podcasts, "G-Taw Zagar Wyne," and "Feminist Talks," in English and Burmese.
One of Myanmar's most vocal feminists, Nandar was included on a list of the "world's most inspiring and influential women" created by the BBC in 2020. As an activist who is in a position likely to be targeted by the military government, she recently fled the country and is communicating the situation of Myanmar, continuing her civil disobedience activism, and seeking to work together with feminist groups overseas. We had trouble conducting the following interview due to having to use encrypted emails, Messenger, and Zoom meetings over many days.
A: Yes, thank you. I am safely out of the country now, and I’ve been resting for a few days and have found some stability. I am happy to be able to communicate with Korean readers through this interview. Even if you have questions you haven’t prepared beforehand, please ask me everything you want to know. I will answer with as much knowledge and honesty as I can.
-Many media outlets around the world report that the civil disobedience movement is a grassroots democratic action that has occurred simultaneously and laterally. What do you think about this based on what you have seen and experienced?
A: In this civil revolution, everyone is taking part, regardless of educational level or the gap between the rich and poor, and whether they are from the city or the countryside. There have been many times in Myanmar's history when the military seized power, took control of society, and citizens were killed. This happened in 1988, 2007 and 2015. That is why the people of Myanmar have a lot of traumas across generations. As history repeats itself, people have learned that if they don't resist now, the same thing will happen again in the next generation. That seems to be the reason why many people are taking the military coup seriously and actively participating in the resistance this time. It's so tragic that there are so many casualties in the process, but if we don't come forward like this, we think that it means we are tolerating this unjust power.
-As you said, many people are standing against the military government together, and specifically, there are names of groups frequently encountered through the press and social media. These are student groups, artist groups, digital activism organizations, and Karen National Union (KNU). In parliamentary politics, news is mostly heard from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). How do you view each group's activities?
A: Many groups play their respective roles and oppose the military coup. Young people do not only participate in protests, but also connect directly with the international community through the Internet. They create satirical memes, spread them, and start petitioning. And art, by its very nature, plays the most radical role in creating change. It's like a tool that can trigger thoughts, feelings, and actions at the same time. The Karen National Liberation Army, the armed forces of the Karen National Union, sometimes stands in front of the protesters, and although I cannot necessarily support military force, it is a form of resistance that is inevitable given Myanmar's history of the persecution of ethnic minorities.
(*The history of the oppression of ethnic minorities by the Myanmar military is long and brutal. In this regard, Ilda continuously covered in 2007 the human rights status of minority women in Myanmar and sex crimes committed by the military collectively, and also introduced the stories of Karen women.
See: “Burmese Military Sexual Crimes ‘Breaking the Silence’” https://ildaro.com/3894)
-The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (composed of members elected in the last general election) formed a new (temporary) government without recognizing the military's declaration of power, right? This is important in that it is a strong political strategy that opposes the coup completely.
A: Movements are taking place in various ways other than street rallies and protests. Behind the armed conflict, a quiet revolution has always been there. I believe that these diverse identities and activities combine to create a unique and resilient Myanmar citizens' movement today. Of course, there are many shortcomings and mistakes, and we cannot predict the future well. Still, I find great meaning in resisting in uncertain circumstances where it is hard to have hope.
A: Even before the military suppression, women activists who participated in the protests experienced sexual harassment by soldiers and suffered a lot of damage from illegal filming. When they wear clothes that expose their skin even a little bit, such as shorts, they are sexually harassed, and their body parts exposed during contact are recorded via photographs and videos and circulated through the Internet. Even before the bloodshed, women had to worry about what to wear when going out. Also, what's important is that in the case of sexual violence, even if they raised the issue, it was usually brushed aside. The logic was that ‘we should focus on bigger issues first’. I was very distressed by this.
-It is nothing new that sexual violence and gender discrimination are considered ‘trivial’ even in activist circles. In Korea, feminism is often regarded as secondary in social movement organizations, and those who report people according to the MeToo movement within their organization are implicitly excluded as ‘whistle-blowers who weaken our power.’
A: To be completely honest, I've been internally conflicted lately as a feminist activist myself. The reason why I couldn't officially deal with the issue of civil disobedience in my usual feminist educational activities or podcasts was because it was difficult for me to decide how to deal with it. Even in the current movement, I see a lot of internal problems. For example, sexist, misogynistic content lined up in the posters of protests. I've seen a lot of people moving past this saying that this is all okay because it is important to stick together with a common goal and vision.
-What kind of sexist, misogynistic posters are there?
A: There are slogans like "My future is bigger than Nicky Minaj's boobs," and posters comparing Min Aung Hlaing (a military leader) to women's genitals. Another common slogan used by protesters is "Min Aung Hlaing motherfucker." Why is "mother" added there? I could never get on board with that slogan.
-Do you have anyone around you who shares awareness of this kind of problem?
A: Yes, gender sensitive friends around me have been complaining of discomfort. Once, a friend of mine experienced something like this: In a corner of the street during the protest, a girl sat down and played with a doll, and my friend saw a man secretly taking pictures of the child's butt with a camera. There were a lot of people around him, but no one stopped him, so my friend approached him and asked him what he was doing. The man got angry, saying that he was ‘just taking a picture of the protest.’ Then his voice got louder and louder, and he called his friends and made my friend out to be a weird person by yelling, ‘We're protesting here for the sake of our country, and she’s making this innocent person out to be a criminal.’ In the end, both my friend and the child who was filmed illegally felt threatened and had to leave quietly.
-How could we publicize such problems in the future?
A: We must keep bringing this up even if we don’t get the proper attention. Even if one person cannot cause immediate change by stepping forward, I think that it can cause little cracks in the wall at least. I believe that it is important for even one person to step forward and facilitate conversations.
-Nandar, could you tell us about the situation in Myanmar in early April, before you fled to a country nearby?
A: Fear, mourning, sadness, and anger have become commonplace since the coup. I still have a lot of feelings that I haven’t processed even now that I am much safer. Myanmar has been quite open and free these past few years since the establishment of a democratic government. But when it suddenly got cut off, that feeling was really scary. After the military oppression began, I decided to leave Yangon and relocate, and I went to my hometown for a while to see my family before I left. That was the second week of March. When I went back to Yangon from my hometown, the city scenery was so shocking that I still remember it vividly.
The highway was full of police and military vehicles, and they grabbed anyone, even civilians, and interrogated them. They asked, "Are you engaging in the CDM (civil disobedience movement)? Where are you going?" The city was devastatingly silent. It used to always be busy, vibrant, and full of people at night, but in those days, there were only a few people even during the day. There was no music playing in any store, and it was so dark and quiet - there wasn’t even anyone who was laughing or crying... Because of the coup, the positive image that I had of Myanmar was destroyed. A beautiful, complicated, and vibrant place, a country of hardworking people. All of that became broken.
-Was there a deciding factor in your decision to move abroad?
A: Anyone who opposes the coup is in danger. In my case, as someone actively engaged in the feminist movement, the military wasn’t going to leave me alone. Many people had already fled overseas, and the first person who left safely helped me escape by providing useful information. I thought I had to move out to do something without feeling helpless. And when I was there, I was terrified. It was difficult to concentrate on activities because there was a risk of being snitched on, and the fact that I had to be at home by 8 p.m. due to curfew was a limitation as well. My family and friends were also worried about me. My decision may seem selfish, but I decided that staying in Myanmar would actually not be helpful for the community. So, I left as soon as I could.
-That's why we are able to have this conversation now. This conversation will be published as an article and reach many people, which will also help the civil disobedience movement. Nandar, you have been so active in the movement that I feel like you’ll definitely be making some other plans now that you’re able to breathe a little bit. Is this right?
A: I am trying to get on with my past work somehow. For example, I want to invite psychologists to my podcast to create mental health content. Emotional care is also very important in the face of a social crisis of bloodshed. We must also inform the international community of Myanmar's political crisis through online interviews or discussions. No, wait a minute. Can we call this a ‘political crisis’? Isn't it just mass murder?
A: I support the National Unity Government, which will be officially announced (on April 16) at the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). It includes many lawmakers elected in last year’s elections and anti-coup officials, and most of all, there are many representatives of ethnic minorities.
There are some politicians who are gender-sensitive, so I think they also have a vision for intersectional feminist policy. There has been a growing demand in Myanmar calling for this form of federal democracy, and it has gathered a considerable amount of support since the coup.
-When I look at the protesters’ pickets and Internet memes, I see that many have State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on them. There seems to be a lot of people who support her and want her to be reinstated. Actually, there have been skeptical voices in the international community about Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership over the past few years. What do you think about this, Nandar?
A: I have decided not to publicly criticize Aung San Suu Kyi in any way. I feel that it’s quite problematic to apply strict standards to female leadership in particular. But I can say this: It is a good thing that Suu Kyi is involved in Myanmar’s parliamentary politics, but decentralization without the focus of power and attention on one person is necessary for more sustainable leadership, grassroots democracy, and people-centered politics. On the other hand, I would like to say that the fact that a woman is a leader of the country has served as an excuse to not take gender issues such as women’s rights, sexual violence, and women’s political advancement seriously.
-Yes, I agree. I think decentralization, grassroots, and people-centered politics are in line with the core values of feminism: freedom, liberation, and coexistence of all sexes/genders. Democracy is also a free political arena where people who are free from sexual oppression participate. I have a question that I really want to ask before I wrap up the interview. What can our Korean readers who empathize with your cause do to stand in solidarity with you guys? Do you have specific suggestions?
A: There are so many ways that people can support this movement! I have six general ideas. 1) First of all, please participate in online/offline protests in your respective places for Myanmar’s democratization. 2) Please participate in national petitions [for our cause]. Even if it may seem pointless, every single attempt is important. 3) Please keep talking to people around you about Myanmar’s civil movement. This is to raise awareness about this issue. 4) Actively protest and boycott against companies or government agencies that provide supplies to Myanmar's military government. 5) Prepare economic, mental, and physical resources to help Myanmar. You could donate to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) or provide refuge for activists both inside and outside Myanmar. There is always a lack of support in areas outside of large cities. 6) We also need content that can help people in Myanmar suffering from violence and loss to recover their mental health. If you are an expert in the relevant field, please consider providing workshops or readings that can be useful to the people of Myanmar. Please find ways to do it in the Myanmar language.
Not long ago, my therapist told me that grieving does not just happen because you lost someone, it happens because you lost the part of your identity that was tied to that person as well. I think that this is the reality of so many people in Myanmar right now because we are losing so many people. We are losing our hopes, jobs, our families, and that means that we are losing part of us as well as part of who we are: our identity as teachers, engineers and daughters, sons and siblings, sisters, brothers, that sort of thing.
If the military continues to stay in power, many connections between the people of Myanmar and the international community will be cut off. This means that one of the doors that led to the world will close. So, if we succeed in preventing the coup this time, it will not only be a victory for Myanmar's citizens, but also a meaningful success for the international community. Please join us in any way you can to keep this door open to the world!
‘Silence serves nobody.’ This is one of my favorite mantras, because if we don’t speak up against the injustices, we become part of the problem. When we know the situation of Myanmar, it is our responsibility to talk about it with our families, colleagues, friends, students, or teachers. It is called raising awareness. Only with that awareness can we move forward towards change. A declaration that the coup, dictatorship, and violence are unacceptable: that's where change begins, even wherever you are.
*About the Author: Harita is a feminist writer who crosses many borders every day, including those between Germany and South Korea. Her email address is email@example.com.
Published May 2, 2021
Translated by Ye Ji Jun
*Original article: https://ildaro.com/9030
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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