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

“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.