Category: Myanmar

Category: Myanmar

“We are building our own history”: Thinzar Shunlei Yi talks to GNWP about the future of Myanmar amidst a military coup

Written by Anniesa Hussain, Peacebuilding Programs Intern for Asia

Edited by Mallika Iyer, Asia Programs Coordinator and Humanitarian Action Specialist

On February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) usurped the National League for Democracy, detained civilian government officials and civil society leaders- declaring a state of emergency on the grounds of alleged election fraud during the national elections in November 2020. The military coup led to an immediate increase in military-sponsored violence and unlawful detentions by the Junta. Thousands of protestors, from all walks of Myanmar society, peacefully took to the streets in a historic uprising against the military coup. These protestors have continued to brave reprisals and targeted attacks throughout 2021, despite over 900 protesters and bystanders, including around 75 children, having been murdered at the hands of the military Junta.

It is estimated that 60% of Myanmar’s protestors are women – with around 50% of women making up all protest-related deaths. Women protestors, particularly from historically marginalized ethnic minorities, have been met with an assortment of state-sponsored abuses from fatal shootings, physical and sexual assaults to denial of food, medical care, and legal representation. Accountability for targeted killings and attacks have been limited, resulting in widespread impunity for perpetrators. In addition, a lack of reporting of these atrocities over recent months by the global media has also increased the military’s impunity.

The desperate situation for women in Myanmar has propelled many women to seek asylum in Thailand and India. It is estimated that at least 50,000 asylum seekers from Myanmar are living in makeshift settlements on Thailand’s western border, facing arrest or forced repatriation by Thai authorities. 

As a show of defiance against the treatment of women, protestors have been adopting creative means of challenging patriarchal norms. For example, in the face of military misogyny women hung their Sarongs (undergarments) and sanitary pads drenched in red paint over photos of military generals – at once a symbol of women’s power and to mock and shame the military forces.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a youth activist from Yangon, is a shining example of resilience in the pursuit of freedom and democracy. From 2012 to 2016 she co-organized and led nationwide and regional youth forums in Myanmar. She was the first woman coordinator of the National Youth Congress (NYC), contributed to the National Youth Policy Strategic Plan and works with the Asian Youth Peace Network. Thinzar Shunlei Yi also works with the Action Committee for Democracy Development (ACDD) as an Advocacy Coordinator. In 2020, Thinzar Shunlei Yi joined the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders’ (GNWP) Young Women Leaders for Peace Myanmar network, coordinated by the Yangon Youth Network. Launched with support from Global Affairs Canada, the YWL network advocates for the effective implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS)  and Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) agendas, along with the protection of the human rights of ethnic minorities, in Myanmar.

In response to the military coup in February 2021, Thinzar Shunlei Yi co-created the #Sisters2Sisters solidarity movement. The movement aims to raise awareness and demand accountability for the Myanmar military’s systematic sexual abuse and oppression of women activists and protestors. Her story is one of courage and perseverance against all odds. She continues to stand by her commitment to fight for a free, fair, and democratic Myanmar.

GNWP held a virtual interview with Thinzar Shunlei Yi on September 15, 2021.

GNWP: It’s been eight months since the military coup in Myanmar. How has the civil disobedience movement progressed? What are some of the challenges the movement is facing?

It’s been over eight months, and the military is refusing to reverse the coup. Instead the military has escalated violence and increased violations of our civil liberties and human rights. Threats to our freedom and ongoing violence are the main challenges to the ongoing civil disobedience movement. Our movement is not just a resistance to the coup, it’s a cultural and ideological revolution. We’re losing friends every day. It’s challenging to keep going. To build a new nation, we have to transform our thinking and the way we do things.

GNWP: It’s been said that women make up 60% of the protestors in the civil disobedience movement. How have women been advocating for gender equality, democracy, and human rights as part of the movement?

We talk about the underlying patriarchy in society and in the Myanmar’s military. The women in Myanmar know what it’s like to be oppressed by men – at home and in public life. This gives us dedication to fight back against the Myanmar military. Our women-led Sarong movement was remarkable. In Myanmar Sarongs hold superstitions, many men believe that touching these garments can take away their power. So, on International Women’s Day, we raised our sarongs. We had support from young men, who act as gender equality allies.

Women, who consist of almost 60% of the whole movement, play many roles including leaders and decision makers. Despite the role we play in civil society, women are not yet in decision-making positions in the government or revolutionary strike committees. We have to demand our rights and space and reclaim our power. It’s tiring for us. There are many different barriers for women in Myanmar to meaningfully participate in political decision-making.  For young women, things are even worse. We are manipulated and exploited by the military Junta.

We need more visibility of the contributions of women and young women in protecting human rights, promoting gender equality, and building sustainable peace in Myanmar. I organized the #Sisters2Sisters movement to build solidarity amongst women’s civil society across the world. This solidarity goes beyond borders, race, sex, and gender. Solidarity is a basic principle of the women’s revolution inside Myanmar. That’s what we try to communicate.

GNWP: We’ve heard about rising levels of sexual violence amongst female detainees. What kinds of risks have women activists been facing?

Women activists are facing threats from their families and the Myanmar military. We are told by parents that protesting out in the streets is not what we’re supposed to do. We are told: “don’t do it, don’t go out!”. This is our first challenge. When we manage to overcome our family’s opposition, we risk being killed by the military and targeted by snipers. Peaceful protests can become flash strikes where we go out onto the streets and immediately disappear. We can be arbitrarily arrested by the military forces. When they arrest young women they take us to the investigation center where they check our mobile devices for personal images or incriminating content that can be used to ruin our reputations and undermine our authority within civil society. Through instilling fear and spreading false information about women the military Junta intend to inhibit the civil disobedience movement.

Since the military coup, many young people have become activists. Leaders of the civil disobedience movement need support, resources, training, and opportunities to amplify their messages to regional and global policymakers. Their voices need to be heard. So, organizations such as yours can amplify voices on the ground, especially those of young women from the ethnic and religious minorities. Their contributions to peacebuilding need to be documented and visible.

GNWP: How has the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar worsened through the military coup and COVID-19? We know that many people have fled to Thailand and India. What kind of support have people received in India and Thailand from humanitarian actors?

The spread of COVID-19 has increased amongst displaced populations fleeing armed conflict between the Myanmar Military and Ethnic Armed Organizations in Kayah State and the eastern Bago region. People, particularly ethnic minorities, in conflict-affected border areas were already facing starvation and a humanitarian crisis existed before the coup.  But, since February, things have deteriorated due to the increasing frequency of air strikes. The number of COVID-19 cases is growing, but medical support (especially oxygen tanks) remains severely limited. To make matters worse, the military is preventing relief goods and humanitarian aid from being delivered to these communities. More and more people are dying from extreme poverty and starvation.

Efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis by civil society, INGOs, and UN entities have been severely inhibited by disruptions to banking, martial law, ongoing internet shutdown, and the lack of humanitarian access to vulnerable populations in conflict affected communities. India and Thailand have accepted refugees from Myanmar temporarily, but neither country is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. So, the help that asylum seekers receive is limited.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thai government has imposed stricter regulations and limitations on asylum seekers. The Thai government have been arresting and deporting asylum seekers from Myanmar. In addition, global policymakers are not pressuring the Indian and Thai governments enough to protect and support asylum seekers facing grave threats from the Tatmadaw.

GNWP: How has access to healthcare, education, and the right to work been impacted by COVID and the military coup, particularly for women and ethnic minorities?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has documented almost 500,000 COVID-19 cases in Myanmar. Only six per cent of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In response, healthcare workers are protesting against the military coup as a part of the civil disobedience movement, but many have been arrested. As a result, the national healthcare system has been shattered, resulting in thousands of people in search of oxygen cylinders and crematoriums overflowing with bodies. The escalation of politically motivated arrests since the 1 February 2021 military coup has coincided with a surge in infections in the country’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons.

At the frontlines of the civil disobedience movement and due to the COVID-19 pandemic women, young women, and girls in Myanmar are experiencing some of the highest levels of insecurity in recent history. Women are facing arbitrary arrest, sexual violence and harassment as well as being confronted with poverty, unemployment, restrictions to sexual health and reproductive services and education. Many women are forced to work in inhumane conditions in factories – with no other choice to bring food back to their desperate families. Sometimes, they have to work overtime without receiving compensation. Intimate partner violence has also increase, yet women have nowhere to report cases. They can no longer go to the military because they are too busy arresting protestors.

GNWP: How has the National Unity Government engaged youth, women’s rights groups, and ethnic minorities? Are you optimistic about the development of the Federal Democracy Charter?

Engagement with youth, women’s rights groups, and ethnic minorities has improved in comparison to the last ten years. In the previous decade, we thought we were building democratic institutions – but it was all an illusion.  In the wake of the recent coup, people are feeling more hopeful. There are no boundaries anymore. We can create the nation we want to live in. We’re shaping our own future right now. Myanmar’s youth is very determined to work with the National Unity Government. We are holding them accountable to principles of human rights, democracy, and gender equality. The National Unity Government and the Federal Democracy Charter are just a small part of the movement, but they are not the center. Young people are the heartbeat of the movement! We are eight months into our movement – this is just the beginning.

GNWP: What are your recommendations for the UN Security Council and the international policymaking community?

We’ve been urging the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar’s situation to the International Criminal Court, and to ensure accountability for state-sponsored violence and genocide. But nothing has been done. We are no longer depending on or waiting for the United Nations to act. Whether the UN recognizes the National Unity Government or not, the military Junta will always be criminal in our eyes.

Solidarity with the People of Myanmar

February 4, 2021

The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) strongly condemns the military coup, which jeopardizes the peaceful democratic transition in Myanmar. On 1 February 2021, the Tatmadaw (military) arbitrarily detained civilian government officials and civil society leaders and declared a state of emergency on the grounds of disputed results of the national elections in November 2020. Internet connections and mobile phone service were restricted as fears of military-sponsored violence and unlawful detentions rose. The actions taken by the Tatmadaw infringe the civil liberties of the people of Myanmar.

The military rule in Myanmar has overseen a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, along with countless other crimes against humanity targeted at marginalized ethnic minorities. The impunity for these crimes has encouraged further seizure of power and disruption of democratic processes.  GNWP is deeply concerned that these recent actions by the military may lead to further violence and the disruption of humanitarian aid delivery to internally displaced ethnic minorities living in dire conditions. We call on the Tatmadaw to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks on civilians and arbitrary detention.

GNWP stands in solidarity with the people of Myanmar, especially grassroots women and youth peacebuilders. We echo their calls for:

  1. Respect and protection of the human rights of the people of Myanmar, including but not limited to their civil liberties and freedom of expression.
  2. Immediate release of political leaders and civil society activists and all those detained unlawfully by the military.
  3. Restoration of democracy, resumption of Parliament, and respect for the outcome of the November 2020 national elections.
  4. Irreversible reforms to national frameworks to strengthen language on human rights and democracy and prevent recurrence of such actions.
  5. Immediate restoration of the internet and all other forms of communication in Myanmar.
  6. Uninhibited delivery of humanitarian aid to refugees and internally displaced persons.
  7. Boycott of Myanmar military-owned companies which continue to make profits while citizens are driven into deeper poverty.
  8. Suspension of social media accounts of military and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) leaders which incite violence, sow divisions, and spread disinformation.

We urge the United Nations and the rest of the international community to take all actions necessary to protect civilians and prioritize their needs as they continue to grapple with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Community protection mechanisms must be established for civil society activists and peacebuilders leading civil disobedience campaigns to protest the coup. It is critical that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemn the coup, suspend all engagement with the Tatmadaw, and establish a global arms embargo. To hold perpetrators accountable for crimes of genocide, the situation in Myanmar must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Without swift, concerted action from the international community, the human rights of the people of Myanmar, particularly ethnic minorities, will continue to be violated without consequence.

Launching Young Women Leaders for Peace Myanmar: An important step in the advancement of the Women, Peace and Security and Youth, Peace and Security agendas

November 20, 2020

By Mallika Iyer and Heela Yoon

Edited by Mavic Cabrera-Balleza

We are not afraid to hold our government accountable. We are ready to mobilize for constitutional reform and military accountability,” expressed a young peacebuilder[1] during the “Training of Trainers” (ToT) on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) and Youth, Peace, and Security (YPS) agendas organized by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) and the Yangon Youth Network, with support from Global Affairs Canada.  

With support from Global Affairs Canada, the ToT was held as a series of workshop sessions, that convened 27 young women leaders, LGBTQIA+ youth, and male gender equality allies from Yangon, Karen, Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine States between September 26 and October 24, 2020. The ToT raised awareness and knowledge about the WPS and YPS agendas among young people in Myanmar. The ToT included sessions on leadership, peacebuilding, electoral participation, economic empowerment, and the use of social media for advocacy. It also served as the official launch of the Young Women Leaders for Peace (YWL) in Myanmar. Coordinated by GNWP, the YWL is an international network of young women and gender equality allies who are advocating for the effective implementation of the WPS and YPS agendas in conflict-affected situations. It also works on the intersection of these agendas with humanitarian action including the response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. A key advocacy message for the YWL is to ensure local young women’s participation in peace and security processes and in the design and implementation of humanitarian response.   

Prior to the ToT, GNWP facilitated a virtual focus group discussion on September 12, 2020, during which young peacebuilders analyzed peace, security, and gender equality in Myanmar. They discussed barriers to their meaningful participation in peacebuilding and political decision-making; and identified the training and advocacy needed to overcome them. The focus group discussion enabled GNWP and the Yangon Youth Network to contextualize the ToT and ensure that it is tailor-fit to the needs and awareness and knowledge level of the participants.

Reflections on the implementation of the WPS and YPS agendas in Myanmar

The implementation of the WPS and YPS resolutions in Myanmar has been quite bleak. “It’s not enough to have a woman as the leader of our country. We need women leaders who believe in and work towards gender equality, women’s rights, and human rights,” explained one of the young women participants in the ToT. Women, particularly from historically marginalized ethnic minorities, are significantly underrepresented in political decision-making, constituting only ten percent of the seats in the National Parliament. Despite quotas for women’s participation in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, the number of women meaningfully participating in the ongoing Panglong Peace Process has decreased from 21 to 11 percent over the years. Women’s civil society groups have also been largely excluded from participating in the government-run taskforce on WPS and violence against women. As a result, the Union Peace Accord fails to meet the needs of conflict-affected women and girls; nor does it include gender-responsive budgeting for the limited provisions on women’s rights.  Similarly, while youth organizations across the country have an established record of involvement in community organizing and activism, young women and LGBTQIA+ youth have very limited or no opportunities to participate in peacebuilding and political decision-making. The Government of Myanmar does not have a National Action Plan (NAP) on United Nations Security Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 or a roadmap on YPS. Instead, the government adopted the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) and a National Youth Policy, which are yet to be effectively implemented.

According to the young peacebuilders, a key challenge in the achievement of sustainable peace and gender equality is the limited awareness of the relevance and importance of the WPS and YPS resolutions amongst government, women’s rights groups, and youth organizations in Myanmar. “We need a National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325. It would define our priorities on peace and security in Myanmar,” a participant shared. “We could use the NAP to hold our government accountable for gender equality and human rights.” During the training, they committed to advocating for the adoption of a NAP through an inclusive drafting process. 

Full and effective implementation of the WPS and YPS resolutions has never been more urgent. There are reports of continued conflict-related sexual violence amongst other human rights violations inflicted on the Rohingya despite the request for provisional measures by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) requiring Myanmar to prevent its military from committing acts that amount to or contribute to the crime of genocide. The request for provisional measures was made a result of the ongoing case filed by the Government of the Gambia concerning violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the Government of Myanmar.

During the ToT, the participants discussed the perception of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. One of the Rohingya participants said, “Intruder. Kalar[2]. Dirty. Illegal. Too many kids and wives. Immigrant. Cockroach. Ugly. Sharp nose. We, Rohingya, have been called many names except our own. Many people in Myanmar are allergic to our name.” The ToT participants also discussed the increasing cases of sexual and gender-based violence against other ethnic groups in the Kachin, Northern Shan, and Karen states. Human rights violations, particularly against ethnic groups, continue to occur even as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar accused the Burmese military of using the COVID-19 pandemic as “a cover to commit war crimes”.

Due to state repression against groups and individuals advocating for an end to the atrocities against the Rohingya, there is notable silence on this issue inside Myanmar. Thus, perpetrators within the government and military continue to enjoy impunity. Nonetheless, the young women leaders and gender equality allies bravely declared: “We need to respect and recognize the rights of ethnic groups in Myanmar. We are ready to fight for peace now—not later.” The ToT was one of the few discussions about the Rohingya genocide and the ongoing ICJ case amongst young peacebuilders in Myanmar. The members of the Young Women Leaders network highlighted the need for accessible global and regional mechanisms and platforms to condemn and demand accountability from their government for the Rohingya genocide and effective implementation of the WPS and YPS resolutions.

The young peacebuilders also identified electoral participation as a key strategy to demand accountability for gender equality, human rights, and sustainable peace from political decision-makers.  But while the Union Election Commission’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy and Action  Plan encourages political parties to increase the membership of women, the actual numbers of women politicians are much lower. “It’s hard to change things if we are not part of the system. If we want more women in peace processes, we need to elect more women politicians. Most political party leaders are currently men.” a participant explained. The ToT participants also shared their perspectives on the barriers to political participation with some young women candidates prior to the national elections on November 8, 2020[3] from the Democratic Party for New Society and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. A young woman politician described some of the challenges she experienced in campaigning: “I face so many threats, with people monitoring my social media accounts and attacking my gender identity and sexual orientation. I’m thought to have no knowledge or experience. I am sexualized in the media. Men in my constituency try to shame and silence me. I need the support of a sisterhood of young women peacebuilders who believe in me. I am brave. I am dedicated to the cause. That’s why I won’t step down.” During the training, the young peacebuilders developed initiatives to generate support in their communities for politicians who promote gender equality and peace. These include social media campaigns to amplify their messages and counter fake news and mentorship schemes between seasoned and younger politicians in communities.  

Ultimately, the online workshops established a network of Young Women Leaders, supported by gender equality allies and LGBTQIA+ youth, who will meaningfully participate in, influence, and lead community-based peacebuilding, and advocacy for the implementation of the WPS and YPS resolutions, human rights, and an immediate cessation of armed conflict and violence. The Young Women Leaders for Peace Myanmar are ready to get to work! The active participation of young women leaders, LGBTQIA youth and gender equality allies in the focus group discussion and the ToT; as well as the establishment of the Young Women Leaders – Myanmar are all indicators of success in advancing the WPS and YPS agendas in this country. They represent a sign of hope in a country where independent civil society voices have been re


[1] Names have been redacted to protect youth peacebuilders.  

[2] “Kalar” is a racist term to describe a person of Indian heritage in Myanmar.

[3] There is still no available gender and age disaggregated data on the full results of the elections on November 8, 2020. GNWP and the Yangon Youth Network are closely monitoring the results as part of our efforts to hold elected officials accountable to laws and policies on human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, gender equality, and peace and security.