On February 1, the Burmese military reopened a tragic chapter in its history by toppling the newly elected government and regaining power in a coup. Hundreds of thousands of people have gone on strike or taken to the streets to denounce the murderous junta, and while people from all walks of life participate, women are in the foreground.
In the first week of resistance to the coup, thousands of women garment workers left the factories to join the protests, inspiring the masses.
“One of the first groups to protest was the women’s unions and garment workers, as well as young activists,” one protester told me. “People saw garment factory workers protesting in Yangon, so they did the same over the next few days,” added another protester.
Activists and politicians also helped mobilize crowds to join the protests. Ei Thinzar Maung, one of the country’s youngest female MPs in the last election, nominated by the Democratic Party for a New Society, uses her social media accounts where she has more than 360,000 followers to rally support for demonstrations.
“Please get out of all places in Yangon peacefully and join the strike in Myanikone,” one of his messages read. “Women at the front,” reads another article with a photo of herself and other women from different groups joining the movement.
The risks are high for those who take to the streets. Security forces used excessive and deadly force in suppressing protests, including high-pressure water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition. On February 10, police shot dead Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, 19, in the head during a protest in Naypyidaw.
Police and military have since murdered at least 60 other women, men and children. They also arrested more than 1,500 people, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners of Burma.
Describing the dangers of arrest for women, another activist from Myanmar told me: “When they are illegally arrested, women face additional risks of sexual harassment and violence from the security forces. “
These fears are well founded. For years, my colleagues at Fortify Rights have documented incidents of mass rape of women and girls by security forces.
However, the brutal tactics employed by the military and police did not deter people from taking to the streets.
“I have no fear of being arrested,” said a human rights defender and member of the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions, a national student organization with a long history of pro-democracy activism in the country. Myanmar. “I am fighting for justice. I am fighting for democracy. I am fighting for our generation. “
This is not the first time that women have taken a leading role in Myanmar’s struggle for freedom. During pro-democracy protests in 1988, also known as the “Uprising of 8888”, university students, many of whom were women, led the charge and paid a high price for their commitment to democracy. . Security forces shot dead hundreds of demonstrators and jailed dozens for participating in peaceful protests.
“My politically active grandmother has always been under surveillance and imprisoned for many years [for participating in the 1988 movement]Said a Burmese activist who is now actively involved in the protests. “These were terrible times and I felt I had to play my part not to let history repeat itself.”
Myanmar women are also spearheading efforts to raise international awareness of the situation in Myanmar. For example, a woman of Chin origin from Myanmar who now lives in the United States told me about her solidarity campaigns.
“When [the coup] arrived, we got together to do awareness campaigns. We have organized peaceful demonstrations in the city center where we live, ”she said. “One of the things we can do that will be the most effective is to make the global community aware of what is going on and, at the same time, to let our community in Burma know that we are on their side and that we support them. . “
As the battle for democracy in Myanmar rages on, women will continue to be on the front lines like the generations of women who came before them. The international community must support them. On March 5, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) called a closed-door meeting to discuss rising death tolls and arbitrary detentions as protests continue in Myanmar.
Over the years, the UNSC has issued several statements in response to the atrocities committed in Myanmar, none of which have led to significant change on the ground. This time around, the international community must take decisive action. The UNSC must impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar’s military and call on the International Criminal Court to investigate its crimes.
The international community must recognize the courage of Myanmar women and support them in their struggle for democracy.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.