By Thin Lei Win
NAYPYITAW (Myanmar Now) - They are mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who have been also active for years in Myanmar politics, business, and social and cultural affairs. They have managed to thrive in the country’s patriarchal society and in spite of its conservative culture.
These multi-hyphenated women are part of the new crop of elected members of parliament, and make up 13 percent of elected MPs - still a low number but more than double that of the previous parliament.
Before parliament opened on Feb. 1, these women had already taken up residence in the simple government housing quarters in the capital Naypyitaw, where the spartan rooms have three small wooden beds and an attached toilet, but lack any proper cooking facilities. Being away from families and their children, they say, is their biggest challenge, yet many are soldiering on with few complaints.
Myanmar Now chief correspondent Thin Lei Win spoke to four women MPs - three of them new to the job - about their lives, challenges and aspirations in parliament.
— Nan Khin Saw, Lower House MP for Kum Hein Township, Shan State, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD)
“I can’t even describe how glad I am to be representing Shan people. I’ve always been involved with social affairs and education issues in our region and was a senior member of the SNLD office in our area. When elections came, locals urged me to run so we submitted a request to the SNLD headquarters. When they approved, I started campaigning.
There are many challenges for female politicians. In the ethnic areas, there are very few women who are politically active. There’s pressure and gossip from their surroundings so not many dare to get involved. When we deal with other people and some government agencies, I always felt conscious of how they looked at me just as a woman, and their attitude is that woman and politics don’t mix. To a certain extent, it seems ethnic people don’t trust women politicians very much. We have to encourage and persuade more women to get involved in politics as well as our party.
I have two children, the elder is 12 years and the younger is only three and half years old. Their grandmother is taking care of them at the moment. I guess I can say my husband supports my political activities. He hasn’t objected.
I have a small home business producing jellies, soft drinks and assorted fried snacks. Before that, I worked as a teacher for 15 years, teaching Shan language and literature. But I continued my political activities after I started my own business. Because if you’re self-employed, you have control over when you work and when you engage in social and political affairs.
It was the love of Shan language and literature that brought me into politics. I wanted to preserve them and prevent it from going extinct so I was active on this issue since high school. I hope to include Shan language in the school curriculum. But Myanmar language is essential too…
I want to focus on ethnic affairs and peace in this five-year term. Kum Hein itself is peaceful but we have to look at the whole country, beyond your own community. I’m optimistic about this parliament. We are here because the public elected us so we have to work hard for them.”
— Khin Hnin Thit, Lower House MP for Pan Taung Township, Bago Region, National League for Democracy
“My dad is a doctor and he was the head of the student union when he was a medical student in Mandalay. He has also been involved with the NLD since 1988. Perhaps I take after my father because I’ve been interested in politics since I was young.
(When 1988 happened) I was in Yangon as a third-year international relations student. But while I was studying that, it occurred to me that a politician should know law so I applied to become a lawyer. Up until the (2015 elections) I was a lawyer. But once the political situation improved I tried to attend as many political trainings as possible.
I was born in Pyinmana (Shan State) when my dad was stationed there. Pan Taung is where my dad moved to and where I work as a lawyer. I had been working on land disputes for the farmers, but I wanted to be involved in politics in an official capacity. That’s why I ran in the elections.
I come from a political family, but my husband is in the civil service. He’s a head engineer. Because he has the ability to be the breadwinner he wanted me to become a housewife. So my first challenge was to persuade him to understand that my interest and desire is in politics. Now he understands.
I have twin daughters. They’ve finished high school and scored four distinctions each. They are interested in politics too, like their mother. They helped me with my campaign. I still have to be a model mother to my daughters and continue nurturing them.
There’s still not enough rights and authorities for female parliamentarians. The first batch did as much as they could and they faced even more challenges because this was the first parliament after some 50 years. I believe it would be much smoother and there’s more we can do. There are more of us now.”
— Cin Ngaih Mang, Upper House, Chin State Constituency (7), Zomi Congress for Democracy.
The reason we are here at the parliament is because we are representatives of the people. So while I feel a big responsibility as we are taking the first steps towards working for our people and our region, I also feel excited about this prospect.
There are few women in the parliament. As a woman, I will be putting women’s issues as the forefront and will work on achieving gender equality between men and women.
Of course, there are challenges in living apart from your family. But if you consider this as being in the interest of your people and your region, then it is more important than just your family affairs. If you can think that way, then I don’t think you’ll be daunted by the challenges.
I think the ethnic affairs will improve. But the NLD is the main winner of the elections so a lot of it depends on them too.
— Cho Cho Win, Lower House MP for Mawleik Township, Sagaing Region, National League for Democracy
“I’ve been involved in politics since the 1988 (democratic uprising) when I was a final year student majoring in Economics, residing at (the renowned) Malar Hostel. I was also active during the 1990 election campaign. After graduation, I worked in private companies.
I returned to politics in the 2012 by-elections when I was working as the election agent of NLD representative Min Kin. We’ve always supported the NLD so when we heard the NLD was entering the by-elections, I felt it was my duty to help the party win.
I’m a native of Mawleik though, and I returned because my elder sisters, who work in the civil service, got promoted and had to move to other cities. There was no one else in the immediate family to look after my mother, who is bedridden, so I came back to do that. That’s how I ended up becoming a candidate at Mawleik.
Whenever people ask me how I feel about being elected, I always tell them I don’t feel anything special. I didn’t enter politics because I wanted to get elected. It was to achieve democracy. For me it’s just about being responsible whatever your position is.
My political spirit was borne out of a love for truth and a desire for justice. So all my family members have the same mentality. But when I go on campaigns, I had to leave my mother and my sisters would chide me for that, even though they support what I’m doing.
For now I’ve asked cousins and nieces for help to look after my mum. She’s now 89 and has been bedridden for about seven years since she broke both her legs. There are two ways to get home from (Naypyitaw). Both routes take about two days and that’s the fastest way.
We need more women parliamentarians. Myanmar culture is one that favours men over women, so many educated women after they got married became housewives. Their skills and abilities no longer benefit the nation. It’s a big loss to the country…
Another thing I want to do is to educate the general public on their rights. Yes, education and healthcare are weak. But I want to raise people’s political awareness, because only if you know your rights then will you be able to use them. This should be done at the same time as trying to raise the quality of education and healthcare services.”