In this episode, Bonnibel Rambatan and Thet Wai talks about Myanmar’s New Feminist Narrative and Wai’s experiences as a feminist activist in Myanmar.
Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.
In New Naratif, we believe that democracy goes beyond the ballot box. It’s not just about voting, or even taking to the streets. Democratic participation comes in a lot of ways, but it’s primarily shaped by what we mean when we say democracy. That’s actually one of our key focus areas in New Naratif.
Through this Democratic Participation research, we try to break down, and expand, the understanding of Southeast Asian democracy. Particularly, as with the researcher we’ll be speaking to today, we are doing so through an intersectional feminist lens. We move beyond a simple focus on just representational democratic practices to find a link between democratic processes and gender rights and how they are interconnected.
The research also aims to understand how regional gender rights activists and feminists are fighting for a more inclusive democratic society, and to examine potential transnational solidarity among pro-democracy movements across the region. This, we believe, is crucial in preventing democracy from becoming an exclusive domain for the elite socioeconomic classes.
I’m Thet Wai, I’m a gender rights researcher for Democratic Participation Research with New Naratif. I’m originally from Myanmar
That is Thet Wai, a gender rights researcher at New Naratif currently leading our Democratic Participation research. She has spent more than ten years working with different marginalised groups in Myanmar for feminist movement building.
Her first publication is titled “A New Feminist Narrative: Towards More Inclusive Southeast Asian Democracies”. In this episode, we will talk about that, as well as her experiences as a feminist activist in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s New Feminist Narrative
We are doing this interview today because you recently published a research in New Naratif titled “A New Feminist Narrative Towards More Inclusive Southeast Asian Democracies”.
So, Thet Wai, could you maybe tell us more about that publication? What is it about and what is your research in general about?
So the research is mainly to look at independent gender rights organisation and feminist organisations in relation to conceptualised more inclusive, democratic participation and democracy in Southeast Asia.
By saying that often when we think about democracy or when we talk about democratic participation, women rights and other marginalised genders, human rights are often overlooked or often not really taken into considerations.
So in this research, we going to be exploring more from the intersectional feminist lands to think about how we can conceptualise a new Southeast Asian democracy from those marginalised perspectives. So that’s the aim of the research.
So what’s your approach there specifically? Because I understand that this is the first publication, you’re going to have a couple of publications.
Could you maybe talk us through a little bit about your approach and the timeline and how many publications will there be?
So there are three publications. So the first is A New Feminist Narrative towards a More Inclusive Southeast Asian Democracy, which is more about unpacking the terminologies and a bit of how we approach these theories and ideas.
The second and the last report will be more about methodology and findings and analysis after I talk to different independent feminist activists, pro democracy activists, and independent gender and feminist organisations from the region.
So from the region, which I mean from the mainland, Southeast Asia and Indonesia and Malaysia. So those are the countries I would be focusing on for later analysis and findings.
The moment that I looked into your research, what struck me most, what I found most interesting was how it’s not every day you get something that’s like democratic participation.
And then it really focuses on gender, it focuses on feminist issues. So what is it about gender and feminism that’s really important for democracy, would you say?
Well, I would say when we think about democracy, it’s for everyone, right? So democracy has this concept that guarantee freedom, equality, justice to everyone. But in reality, one, we fight for democracy.
And we have witnessed in most of those, like, pro democracy movement that there’s this patriarchy mindset around our peers, our fellow human rights activists and politicians policymakers. There’s this strong patriarchal attitude really embedded in whatever they are doing on the ground.
So often marginalised genders and women are put behind the real struggle, and often their concerns and lived experiences are not recognised and are not taken into considerations when we fight for human rights.
So actually, that’s also my well, I would say that’s where it came from. My main interest when we think about democracy, because from where I’m coming from, we talk a lot about democracy because we have been under military rule for so many decades.
So democracy has been this concept and it has even become this colloquial world. And in terms of linguistic, people will use democracy on everyday basis and wherever you go, you will even see like, oh, this is democracy tea shop, or this is democracy coffee, or like that people often use as a brand as well.
But then, okay, we talk a lot about democracy, but what about what is this democracy that we are talking about? Because we see that often transgender are being oppressed for being transgender, sex workers are oppressed and violated and often experience violence.
And also factory workers, women factory workers are often violated on the factory floor. So what is this democracy we are talking about if we leave these marginalised groups in the discussion, in the movement, in the struggle.
So, yeah, that’s why it is personally also very important for me to think from this perspective, this more marginalised perspective, when I think about democracy.
You did mention in your publication that it is an overused terms and I completely agree with you. We hear it all the time without really questioning what it actually means.
I mean, a lot of us, I think, mistake democracy as long as we have voting, right? As long as we just vote for people. But it’s not really practiced in the day to day life, which of course in your narrative, we really push for that a better understanding, a more democratising democracy in Southeast Asia, as I say in the introduction of this podcast.
But I want to get back to your point there. So it’s a very interesting point of view where looking at all of these oppressions, looking at all of these lack of democratic practices, you believe that a feminist lens and an intersectional lens is very important to actually achieve a better democracy, right?
So how did you come to this conclusion or hypothesis, since you are researching that deeper, right? I mean, obviously you’ve been an activist for so long, but yeah, why do you believe that feminism is the key for all of these intersectional struggles?
So, sure, there are different school of thoughts in feminism as well. But what strike me when I started learning more about feminism and feminist ideologies are through black feminism and also in reality on the ground.
In the last few years, when I started working with factory workers and women in the conflict areas, they really taught me how to look at oppression in a more intersectional ways because I’m originally from the city.
So I’m like this urban feminist. I have these privileges. I speak the majority language. I’m from the majority ethnic group.
I experience oppression and discrimination as a woman, but since I’m not ethnic minority, since I don’t write this particular religion or I’m not from this race or this group, so I don’t experience the other oppressions that the other marginalised groups are experiencing.
So when I encountered that, I became too aware that there are multiple operations that different women and different marginalised genders experience because they are from this group, or they are from that region, or because they are in the conflict area, or because they are from this social class. So we can’t say, yeah, women experience discrimination.
Yes, gender, different marginalised gender experience oppression. We can’t just say like that.
We really have to understand what are these multiple oppressions that they are experiencing. And in that regard, in that sense, I believe that feminism, more like a radical feminism, can provide us that tool or that perspective to put in when we walk together with other marginalised groups so that we can listen to their lived experiences and how they are experiencing different operations because of where they are from, because of their skin colour or because of their religion they are practicing, because of their sexual orientation, so on and so forth. That’s why I believe that.
And also from Southeast Asia, feminism has been there, but because Southeast Asia has been colonised, and there is also this urgency to decolonize our knowledge system and to kind of rediscover our own epistemology around those knowledges.
So that’s why, for me, it is important that feminism is a starting point to think about all these aspects and all these perspectives when we talk about democracy, social justice, freedom.
Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack to follow up on your explanations, but I guess we can start by exploring the there are lots of schools of thought, as you mentioned, lots of schools of thought of feminism.
There’s lots of schools of thought of even thinking of democracy itself and civic participation and grassroots movements and stuff like that.
Could you tell us a bit about if you’ve ever encountered all of these pushbacks within feminist movements and without feminist movements, like maybe in your general activism activities in general in Myanmar and maybe in your research and stuff?
Yeah, there’s quite a lot of backlashes, I have to say. Also, I put that in the report as well, because it’s thick in my mind.
So I started my activism a little bit over ten years ago, and at that time, I work with a lot of different political activists, including former political prisoners as well. Most of them are my friends.
And one friend told me that our country is still fighting for human rights, so your women rights can come later. What important is human rights. And that really shocked me. Like, oh, aren’t we also human? I still don’t get it when he said that. I didn’t get it, and I say, don’t get it.
Over the course of the years, they stay somehow similar sentiments around that as well. And in the last few years, the government was really trying hard to do, like peace talk and peace conferences, and there are a lot of advocates, oh, women should be at the peace table with all these men wearing uniforms and weapons and things like that. And most of the time they will say that these women issues are more like social issues, not political issues.
These gender issues are more social issues that we should discuss only when we have extra times. Our peace talk is the main political issues for the country.
So a lot of gender issues and a lot of these operations are being depoliticised as well. When we talk about these important political issues, especially in a country like Myanmar with a lot of violent history and violent cases and usually women and marginalised genders are the ones who experience violence the most from the military and from other non state groups and from public as well.
But then when they talk about violence they exclude the groups that are most subjected and conditioned to those violence situations. Yeah, that’s one thing. And another thing is that there are a lot of women empowerment or women leadership, that kind of concept or those kind of ideologies floating around in the last few years through UN and these kind of big international organisations as well.
But I feel like those movement, I’m not dismissing or discounting those movement, those are important in a country like Myanmar where we have been so isolated for so many decades. Those are really important to acknowledge women’s leadership and women’s empowerment, et cetera.
But often we forgot again about our own position when we are doing these kind of things. So we will often forget about the conditions that are being made to these disadvantage or these social classes group who don’t have resources or who don’t have means to even climb the ladder like that.
But often they will say oh, you are not a leader because you don’t walk hard enough or you are not leader because you don’t have the scale. So you need to be equipped with the scale, something like that.
But the thing is not that because they don’t have skill or knowledge or not that because they are not smart, they just simply don’t have the means to get out or to became a leader and to fight against these traditional norms and these violence condition that they have been experiencing.
So we have to acknowledge that and those are systematically made conditions and situations. These kind of backlashes are everywhere in the last few years because people focus much more on peace talk and these important political conversations and discussions that only men can do and these kind of things
It’s been said that there are two kinds of people. One is the one who believes that everyone’s equal and then they just like the means and the structure works against them.
And the other is like people who believe that there are different qualities of people who have more rights to who will make better leaders or who should have more rights to this and that which is, I mean, obviously that’s like some of the worst views that you can have.
But unfortunately, that happens a lot in our conversations, our political conversations, since they work essentially by exclusion, right?
By excluding even amongst the feminists, you have the turf movements, the trans exclusionary, radical feminists are really in high gear right now fighting against trans rights.
So yeah, I mean, why do you think it’s even sharpening in that divide? And I guess, like, how do you, how do you, how do you talk to people?
How do you structure your research, for example? And how do you communicate to people that, hey, we should be all in this together, for example. And also there’s been understandable rejection.
For example, when you talk to the factory workers, I assume that some people might see, oh, you’re from the city, you’re not going to understand our struggles and stuff like that.
How do you bridge all of these differences?
So, for the research, I talked to a few people because only noun the interviews process is starting. When I talk to a few feminists from the region, to be honest, they share the same experience.
They are like, yeah, because when we identify ourselves as a feminist and when we talk about intersectional framework, a lot of people more or less attack or they humiliate, oh, you are extreme activists or feminism is not really fitted with our culture or our country like that.
And one activist told me that it often come from human rights activists and lawyers and policymakers like that. So for me personally, when I was working with factory workers and other women in conflict and other marginalised groups back home, back in Myanmar, there’s a lot of unlearning process for me and there’s a lot of trespassing as well.
Like you said, yes, because I’m from the CD and often also, especially when I work with the ethnic minority groups because I’m from the majority ethnic group, there’s this resentment against me because also the oppressor, the military is also this majority ethnic group.
So sure, I’m not the same oppressor, but more or less in the same way, they might say.
So there’s a lot of resentment and there’s a lot of unlearning personally for me that I have to do and I have to sort of surrender, to be honest.
And I have to build this willingness to learn from them, not the other way around. Like, I go to their places, I go to the factories and oh yeah, here I come, I’m a feminist, I’m going to teach you this and that.
I have to really deconstruct that kind of thinking and instead I have to cultivate, accumulate this thinking and this attitude that I’m here to learn from your lived experiences, which I don’t have, so that we can understand each other and we can build more solidify, unified movement across our different struggles.
So, yeah, that’s one methodology I might say I kind of accumulated, cultivated in the last few years. And I remember one time, that was a few years ago, we brought different groups, like different young people, factory workers and different ethnic minorities all together in the same room to talk about their own struggles.
And it turns out that factory workers from the city who are working at those factories don’t understand about the ethnic minority struggle.
Why are they fighting against the military and the government? Because there’s this brainwash from the government as well, like they are terrorists because they are fighting and they are the one making the country unstable. That’s why we still have civil war, et cetera.
So I see that and learning process is really crucial when we talk about this feminist movement and struggles and intersectional approach because we all grew up in a patriarchal political social system that we always absorb these propaganda through government propaganda and through media and through different schooling system and through our parents, et cetera.
That’s one crucial part for me, I would say. So when I talk to different groups and different people, first things first is, okay, I have to unlearn everything I learned at school or even through all these books that has helped me to see or to look at different perspectives.
But yeah, so these lived experiences are crucial and these lived experiences are also part of the knowledge that we want to produce here in the Southeast Asia region.
So, yeah, what about from other activism groups? Because we mentioned obviously from grassroots groups and stuff like that. It’s an excellent answer that I really appreciate. I don’t think people do it enough, you know, just listening to the crossroads, to the lift of experience of people.
But also there are many activism groups, many human rights defenders, many progressive movements that on the one hand are fighting for amazing things, liberation of people here and there and stuff like that.
But on the other hand, as you mentioned before, there’s a lot of these progressive movements that are also not open to the patriarchy that they have internalised, to the misogyny that they have internalised.
How do you talk to these people? How do you talk to fellow activists who don’t understand your approach? Do you think are you more the type who’s like, yeah, okay, do you I’m going to do what I do, or do you still hope to foster a dialogue with them? How is it?
Well, often I try to build connection or I also try to listen to them because I want to understand why I’m doing the way I’m doing and why they are doing the way they are doing. I want to understand that. But it’s not that easy, to be honest.
And I think in the last few years, what I have learned is if I can facilitate to bring those marginalised voices to the center, then those groups maybe think differently and those group will also see the importance of listening to those marginalised voices.
That has been excluded in the movement for so long. So that’s more often my approach, to be honest. But sure, I also have to build network and friendship with these groups and these activists as well. But, yeah, sometimes it’s difficult, and sometimes you don’t want to confront people, and sometimes you don’t want to lose your alliance and allyship, et cetera.
It’s a tricky position to put yourself in, actually. But, yeah, sometimes it also made me upset and disappointed in the movement as well. But I think most of the time I’m more inclined to walk with those marginalised groups rather than those, let’s say, progressive groups or those individual activists.
And then once I build up those stories and those voices from the marginalised groups, then sometimes they’re interested in why you are doing this way, why you are not advocating for policy change or let’s say, these kind of things, but instead why you are working with the grassroots groups and these communities like that.
It’s not like 100% success, but there has been some exchanges, and they see the importance to some extent in the end. So, yeah, I think it’s a constant process and it’s a constant fight and discussions that I think we have to keep going, especially in Myanmar.
Reimagine a New Southeast Asia
I can see how that’s very important because you’re phasing off against such a gigantic and powerful enemy with guns and tanks and everything else, right? They have all of that. So solidarity needs to be fostered.
What’s the current landscape of activism like in Myanmar? I mean, with all of the dangers, but also there’s the grassroots movements there’s, the ones that are more politically active in the sense of advocating for policy change.
here’s also the UN who were there and I guess still are there to to some extent. I see there’s a Declaration of Rights for the Indigenous People, which, you know, are still doing stuff there.
But what’s the landscape between all of these? And, yeah, like, I guess I guess, like, how how is it now? What what can be improved? What’s still missing?
And how do you face this very gigantic problem together?
So, actually, I see my activism walk in the last decade, walking really so hard to be like a critical feminist movement with different crews. I see that as a failure after the military coup, because we didn’t expect that, right? We were so ready for entering a new, let’s say a new landscape.
Everyone was hopeful because really, in the last few years, we were able to talk about transgender rights more openly. There are a lot more, like, okay, Rainbow Festival and Proud Festivals. Sure, these are also very urbanised, but stay.
When I was growing up, we can’t even talk about that. It’s illegal. I mean, it’s illegal to be transgender and things like that. Can you imagine? But also, it’s from the British colonial legacy as well. But they don’t change the law and et cetera.
So we were really hopeful and thinking that if we really walk closely together, then somehow we can build a movement, that we have political solidarity with all these different groups and that we can have more of emancipatory political freedom.
But then overnight, the military could happen, and all these movements that we’ve been working in the last ten years has been like throwing in the water or throwing in the sand, something like that, right.
And then after the military coup, I have to say there has been a well, I wouldn’t say new, but there has been interesting movements across the whole country.
So a lot more people are talking about the role of different marginalised groups in the movement, in the revolution. So now a lot more people recognise men and fighting against the military and a lot more people are recognising transgender rights in the movement, which some of them have been fighting, taking up arms in the jungle and fighting the military.
And also there is this women fighter groups and women trained to become like a sniper. So different parts of the revolution, right, different aspects of the revolution. Some are in a supporting role, some are some become paramedic to help these in those movements and some become teachers to teach the kid in those conflict areas.
All these different movements really come across together. So that’s really fascinating to see. And also now I have witnessed that a lot more people are identifying the military with the patriarchal characteristics.
So oh yeah, this is not only the military with weapons and those uniforms, but this is a military with this fascist characteristics, with this deep patriarchal misogynistic characteristics.
We also have to fight these ideologies as well, not only military as an institution. So that’s really something to be honest, because I myself didn’t expect that to happen. And now also a lot more people are recognising Rohingya rights and Rohingya struggle as well, which in the last few years people are really like Islamophobic and they don’t even trust believe that Rohingyas are being oppressed and the military did all these atrocities and massacre against Rohingya.
But also at the same time, I think there’s still a lot of work to do because sure, there is this, like you said, UN and all these different international organisations as well. But because I think in the last decades our country like Myanmar has been so isolated.
So a lot of these also come in with the mindset that we have to rescue these people, we have to rescue these poor, illiterate Southeast Asian who doesn’t understand about democracy, who doesn’t understand about these different aspect of democratic practices or human rights. So we also have to fight against those imperialistic mindset as well.
Again, I’m not like dismissing or discounting those organisations and those international institutions effort, but we have to keep in mind that our movement also have to be decolonized as well and so that we can rediscover the origin of our struggles and why we fight these oppressions in the first place.
And so that we can also reinvent or we can also acknowledge our own epistemology from Southeast Asia as well, because Southeast Asia is such a rich country. But even the war Southeast Asia come from those areas, from these colonial times.
So we really have to reimagine a new Southeast Asia. What is Southeast Asia for us, for Southeast Asia, and what is our democracy that we like to emerge in without any of those, let’s say, imperialistic, patriarchal, internalised mindset, et cetera.
What Can the Listeners Do?
It’s really amazing how because I would have thought I can’t really imagine how it must have been like for you, who’ve been in the movement, been in the activism scene for so long, only to have the military coupon, like almost overnight.
And it must be so horrifying. But to hear you tell that there is hope, people are still getting together or even building new perspectives that are not only surface level and fighting and taking up arms, but also being a lot more critical ideologically, tying all these things together. And you’re absolutely right.
Feminism is feminism fights against patriarchy and the military functions by patriarchy, right?
So that’s a clear indication why we should be embracing feminism and all of these rights of marginalised groups, marginalised genders, indigenous people, all of these things, and Rohingya rights, which is like that’s an amazing form of intersectionality and solidarity that is happening in Myanmar.
I guess that’s a good segue to be like. Those are the fights that’s happening, that’s currently happening in the revolution in the country itself.
But from the listeners here and from people like myself who are outside of the we’ve never been to Myanmar. We’ve never actually been involved in any kind of significant thing there.
But it’s something that’s very concerning because this has happened before in other parts of the world and it can easily bleed into other countries, neighbouring countries, and it’s scary to think about that.
But what do you think we can do to prevent that kind of thing from happening? And obviously to help the Burmese people, help the people of Myanmar fight against fight against the military junta and just move the cause of the revolution forward?
What do you think that everyday listeners can do?
I think first, I would say, because also to me personally and learning has been really crucial in my activism journey. So that’s really one thing you can really do at your personal level, like, really and learn everything. You learn at our religious schools and at our normal, typical government schools and universities and from our families, parents. Yeah, these kind of things, especially from media and government propaganda like that.
And also another thing that I really love to see in Southeast Asia is that this transcendent, transnational political solidarity among these marginalised groups, these operas groups, because now we see like, sure, in Myanmar, there’s this military coup in Thailand, we don’t even count how many coups they have been going through.
In Vietnam, Laos, there’s a lot of these women’s factories, workers who has been exploited, human rights and no one’s really care.
And also in Indonesia there’s been these new laws drafted, all these backlashes that we witness in Southeast Asia so that we really need to build this solidarity among us as well so that we can fight against those patriarchal militarised oppression that has been rising in the last few years.
I feel like these are not becoming part of the solution anymore because we have seen that those in the power have misused these as a way to sustain their power and to control people and to keep this male dominate, male dominance in the political scene and in the movement to keep harassing people and activists
So we really have to come up with a new movement and new critical ideology that can bring all of us together, despite our languages, despite our nationalities, because we have experienced the same oppression, the rise of the fundamentalism, the rise of military rules in those countries.
And yeah, those corruptions. The public have to keep informed themselves by creating different conversations. We can create these conversations that we are not allowed to have in our classrooms, at our houses. So those are the small things that you can do.
We can do these conversations. We can challenge each other as well so that we can bring this critical thinking. And then from there we can think about how we can actually work together, how we can emerge in this new Southeast Asia and this democracy for Southeast Asia, which is more inclusive towards those marginalised genders and marginalised social class, et cetera.
I don’t have how to say, like, all step by step, but I think those are the first crucial steps that we can do first and lend yourself and then create those conversations with your peers and like minded activists and like minded people which we don’t feel comfortable having.
So those are important. And then from there, build network as much as you can with other activists from other countries so that we can think about and we can put pressure on our own governments and walk towards a more inclusive, democratic Southeast Asian countries.
Yeah, I think that’s beautiful. I mean, there are some problems that we have in certain countries that’s like to solve this problem, you can donate here or you can sign this petition or do this or that thing. But there are other problems.
Like here, the one that we’re discussing, there’s just no easy fix. There’s no easy solution. There’s no, like, one single petition to sign or anything.
And it’s about unlearning, as you mentioned. It’s really here, really in the mind.
It’s about critiquing and reflecting on what you believe and whether you have internalised patriarchy misogyny or other kinds of bigotry. And it’s a great answer. I love it. It’s about unlearning communicating. Talking to people, building conversations that you’re not allowed in schools or elsewhere.
And I guess at the end of the day, that’s what feminism is about, and that’s what feminism has always been, right?
Finding all of these intersections and finding the political in the personal, as the famous saying goes. I think that’s a great note to end on.
Thank you so much, Thet Wai, for the conversation. Yeah, we’ll be keeping in touch again in the future, and I’m sure the listeners will be looking forward to further publications from your research.
Thank you, Bonni. Thanks, everyone who listen to our New Naratif podcast.
And, yeah, I would love to hear all of your thoughts and I love to keep this conversation going on for the fight. Yeah, thanks.
And that wraps up our discussion with Thet Wai. Her research is very new, and unfortunately, at the time of this recording, we don’t have direct actions for you to take or networks for you to join just yet. But be sure to keep up with us at newnaratif.com, sign up to our newsletter, and become a member to stay up to date with what’s going on with her research, as well as all other things we’re doing.
Change starts with the mind, so, as Thet Wai mentioned, keep unlearning, and keep holding discussions that the authorities tell you not to have. The personal is political, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. That is the only way we can move forward.
My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo.
I’ll see you around.