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Breaking the Silence

Vendors, Burma (

Vendors, Burma (Donna Cymek/Flickr)

Women's League of Burma (WLB)


A. Introduction

This paper was prepared and written by a team of the Women's League of Burma (WLB) , an umbrella organization of 11 women's groups of Burma in exile, formed in December 1999. This paper will be submitted to the forty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2002.

This paper reflects the voices of women from Burma interviewed specifically for this purpose by representatives of the Women's League of Burma (WLB). The aim of this paper is to highlight some of the root causes of poverty and environmental degradation in Burma, and show how this has affected women and to give examples of how women are organizing themselves to survive and create an enabling environment for political and social change, and for gender equality.

As has been emphasized in the recent World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in August- September 2001, root causes of poverty and environmental degradation are intersectional. That is, people experience poverty for more than one reason, and these multiple reasons combine to effect negative dynamics that result in complicated and tangled circumstances that are not reducible to any one cause. Nor can they be rectified through addressing only one cause at a time. For the purposes of explaining these intersecting root causes in this paper, section C identifies the following categories: the Burmese military regime's anti-insurgency policies, the regime's 'open door' trade policy for natural resources, and the regime's exploitative and irresponsible agriculture and development policies. In section D, the impact of these various root causes will be 'unpacked' from testimonies provided by women who have experienced various combinations of these state policies.


Data used to write this paper was compiled from interviews with individual women of different ethnic backgrounds, most of whom left Burma within the last three years, from publications produced with the permission of the regime's censor board in Burma, and from research reports by human rights and environment documentation groups, as well as other NGOs and academics.

The team was unable to locate information released by the SPDC on the status of women specifically in the rural and non-Burman ethnic areas. Moreover, to date, there are no publicly available government reports from Burma concerning women and the environment.

Data for the paper was collected in January, 2002, and compiled in February, 2002.

B. Background(1)

Burma, a country rich in natural resources and mineral ores, was once one of the most prosperous countries in Southeast Asia. Its population is approximately 50 million people, with 75 % living in rural and remote areas (2) , and made up of more than a dozen major ethnic groups. Burma was a British colony until it regained its independence in 1948. However, civil war broke out shortly after independence between the ethnic nationalities and the ruling authorities. There was a coup in 1962, which toppled the democratic government. The military rulers assumed total control over all aspects of the government, including the economy. After a quarter of a century of an isolationist policy combined with the mismanagement and corruption of the military dictators, Burma had become one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1987, Burma had to apply for least-developed country (LDC) status with the United Nations.

A year later, in 1988, resentment against Ne Win's SPDC boiled over into massive street demonstrations across the country demanding a restoration of democracy. The military responded brutally. Soldiers fired into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Many were arrested and thousands fled to minority areas, and to neighboring countries. Thousands of young activists also joined the armed struggle against the military.

Due to international pressure on the military regime, elections were held in 1990 and resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, later to become a Nobel peace laureate. However, the regime refused to honour the results of the elections and until today maintains tight military control over the country.

Since its take-over in 1988, the regime has tried to seek cease-fire agreements with armed ethnic groups while expanding its military forces. However, its severe human rights abuses have continued to be rampant, especially in the ethnic lands where the minorities live.

The war raging against the ethnic peoples and the anti-insurgency campaigns conducted by the military have created internally displaced persons (IDPs) and caused an exodus of refugees to neighboring countries.

Social roles and gender stereotypes
In accordance with the Burmese saying," Respect son as Master and husband as God", men are the heads of the household and sons are valued more than daughters in the family. Culturally and traditionally, women are expected to care for the children, and also are responsible for the general well-being of each member of the family. In the face of poverty, women are expected to sacrifice for the family first. "Good" women are rarely single; they are expected to marry and bear children. Even women exceptional in their field rarely get recognition from society. Women's maternal functions are thus considered in Burma to be their only duty. However, the crucial value of maternity for the whole society is not acknowledged at all at present. Because of this, women are weighed down with the entire burden of their reproductive roles, which are expanded to include all of the private sphere duties.

The patriarchal nature of Burmese society is reinforced by the military regime, made up entirely of men.(3)