“The World Has Sent Nothing But Thoughts And Prayers”: How Myanmar Is Being Ignored – And The Female Activists Trying To Effect Change
What would you do if one day the army and police turned against you?
How would you defend yourself and your loved ones from being shot at, kidnapped, tortured, or murdered?
This is life in Myanmar since February 2021, when the Burmese army staged a coup in an attempt to seize back the control they had conceded in faux democratic reforms. Overturning the most recent election, they arrested most of Myanmar’s civilian government, declared a state of emergency and plunged the country into terror.
Eighteen months later, 2,000 people have been killed by military forces, including peaceful protestors, general strikers, complete bystanders, and hundreds of children. And 11,000 more are in prison under ludicrous laws that criminalise the slightest form of dissent. Some are celebrities – Myanmar’s equivalents to Leonardo DiCaprio and Billie Eilish thrown in jail because they went on a march or posted a tweet. My family there live in fear every day. But the rest of the world has sent nothing but thoughts and prayers, and the biggest scapegoat is a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi emerged as a fierce opponent of Myanmar’s long-standing military dictatorship in the late 1980s. Threatened by her popularity as leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the military junta put her under house arrest for 15 years and jailed countless other activists.
During that time, Suu Kyi became a legend. Lauded internationally and loved within Myanmar, she even won the Nobel Peace Prize for her long fight for democracy. In 2015, finally sick of Myanmar being treated as a pariah state, the military junta held what seemed to be its first free election. The NLD won in a landslide and this time was allowed to form an uneasy coalition with the junta. Despite it being written into the constitution that Suu Kyi and her party had no real power, the world declared that Myanmar was finally a democracy and tourists flooded in.
However, shortly after, Suu Kyi suffered a catastrophic fall from grace when the military launched a campaign of genocide against the Rohingya – a stateless people the Burmese army claims are Bengali and so do not belong with the other 130+ officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. Her refusal – or perhaps her inability – to denounce the genocide was interpreted as culpability by many of her international supporters.
The world enthusiastically championed and fought for democracy in Myanmar when it had a democratic leader to believe in, but now the international community has gone completely silent, turning its back on 55 million people – including the Rohingya.
I’ve tried hard not to compare the reactions to Ukraine and Myanmar, but when U2 performed Walk On in Kyiv – a song they wrote about Suu Kyi when it had been trendy to care about Myanmar – but said nothing about current events, it nearly broke me. Suu Kyi is once more behind bars, on spurious charges, along with other members of Myanmar’s rightful National Unity Government. But despite this, there are still women trying to bring change – here are five in desperate need of your support.
- Thinzar Shunlei Yi of Sisters 2 Sisters and People’s Goal
One of Myanmar’s most prominent activists, Yi works with the democracy groups ACDD and GSC, and co-founded Sisters 2 Sisters, promoting solidarity among women fighting systemic oppression and military violence, and People’s Goal, which supports military defectors. Yi says, “It is human to feel guilty about the oppressed. But that guilt should drive us to defend democracy at home, in the community and in the world.”
- Wai Wai Nu of Women’s Peace Network
Founder and executive director of Women’s Peace Network, Nu is a Rohingya woman, and a former political prisoner dedicated to building peace and understanding between ethnic communities and advocating for marginalised women in Myanmar.
- Nandar of Purple Feminists Group
An activist from Shan State, Myanmar, Nandar founded the Purple Feminists Group to promote gender equity and hosts the bilingual podcast Feminist Talks. She also co-produced and directed a four-year run of The Vagina Monologues in Myanmar.
- Me Me Khant of Students for Free Burma
Poet and activist Khant has led global rallies promoting Myanmar’s fight for freedom as executive director and co-founder of Students for Free Burma, which advises US policymakers on key legislation, such as the Burma Act 2021, and produces campaigns to help others understand how they can help.
- Jan Jan of Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy
Hailing from Kachin State, Myanmar, Jan Jan is Burma policy lead for Action Corps and co-founder and executive director of GM4MD. She says, “The world needs to care about Myanmar because it is a global issue encompassing human rights, freedom, democracy, climate justice, corporate accountability and so much more.”
MiMi Aye is the author of the award-winning Mandalay: Recipes And Tales From A Burmese Kitchen, chosen by The Observer, The FT and Nigella Lawson as one of their Best Books of the Year. She also hosts the food and culture podcast The MSG Pod