JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 1 (February 2015)
Some Thoughts on Women’s Important Contributions to Myanmar in Transition
by Jean R. Renshaw

Women are essential to the health and prosperity of all nations. Recent research from the IMF and United Nations indicate that a country’s productivity would be increased if women’s talents were more fully utilized. Estimates of increases in productivity range from the United States at 5% to Japan 9 %, UAE 12% and Egypt 34%. Governments, businesses, and media need women’s perspectives to be effective, and women need to be in management, decision-making, and leadership roles to make this happen. Women in Myanmar have been active participants in leadership historically and it will be important to ensure women’s continuing role as Asian countries transition to more open societies.

This paper is the product of a 2-week stay in Myanmar (March 7-23, 2014) that included my chairing a panel on “Women Leaders in Asia” at the Third Annual International Media Conference, Challenges of a Free Press, sponsored by the East-West Center in Hawaii. The panel discussed the importance of women’s roles in the Asia-Pacific region and the world. The panelists from Myanmar, the United States, and India were successful journalists and managers. They described how they have succeeded in their chosen fields. What factors supported their success? What are the obstacles they faced and still face? The discussion included strategies individual women used to increase the possibility of success, what organizations can do to increase women’s participation, and the role of media in ensuring that women’s voices are heard. Surprisingly, the session was well attended with almost half of the enthusiastic attendees male.

Myanmar is a complex, contradictory country with a complicated history. My initial confusion was whether to call it Myanmar or Burma, its largest city Yangon or Rangoon. The name changes by the military junta in 1989 have not been accepted by the U.S. Department of State. In deference to my hosts, when I chaired my panel and talked to people I used the new names, but in this paper I shall use the more familiar terms “Burma” and “Rangoon.” The people of Burma refer to themselves as Burmese, and although there are some 240 different dialects and language, Burmese is the official language. The nation opened its borders to the outside world only two years ago and the entry requirements are still complicated. I needed a letter from the Minister of Information attesting to my official role at the conference, as well as the usual passport, other official papers and $100. I worried if I would be harassed at the airport for being an American.

Rangoon airport has one terminal for both international and domestic flights where I arrived at 9 in the morning after an overnight in Bangkok amidst milling masses of people. Finding no clear indication in English as to which customs/immigration line I should use, I clutched my letter from the Minister of Information holding it out to anyone who looked at me.  One of the desk people motioned to an official-looking man in an immaculate white uniform with lots of gold braid who came and took my arm and the letter. I thought “Oh, oh, I’m off to detention,” but instead he steered me skillfully through the crowd and the customs and immigration lines and saluted me at the exit. I breathed a huge sigh of relief for that official letter.

The airport is an hour from the city. The drive made me feel as if I were back in India. The heat, the large once-magnificent white colonial mansions, monuments to the arrogance of the British Raj, and in front of the mansions, alongside the wide roadway, masses of people on dirt paths hurrying places, selling goods, and begging. The British Raj left its mark, both positive and negative, throughout the Indian subcontinent. Approaching the city Lake Inya came into view, conjuring up a Monet painting featuring beautiful posture-perfect Burmese women in brightly colored long skirts and colorful umbrellas to shade them from the bright sunlight strolling along the banks with children playing beside them. Arriving at the hotel I was welcomed by elegant costumed doormen, and again smacked by the intense heat.

The conference began with a lunch for the speakers hosted by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and acknowledged leader of the opposition in Burma. Her speech was inspirational, focusing on the need for the rule of law and freedom of the press as Burma transitions to democracy. I was struck by her poise, serenity and confidence, as I was later during the conference by the Burmese women who attended, spoke, and were administering and serving at the conference.  While attending sessions on the economy, the ethnic conflicts and the problems associated with the opening of the media, I found myself intrigued by the beauty. poise and confidence of these women. What made them carry themselves so beautifully and appear so confident? I wanted to find out why they appeared so different from my observations of other Asian women.

The context for viewing  Burmese  women’s roles in society is the complex and contradictory, changing Burmese nation. It has 135 distinct ethnic groups. Wars are ongoing with several of them, most notably the Shan and Rohinga and the military junta’s persistent influence in the economy and society is also a problem. This paper will not analyze these major societal issues but focus on the role of women in the society as seen today amidst this turmoil.

Currently and historically Burmese women have three major advantages over most other women in the world. At least since the Bagan kingdom in the 11th Century and probably prior to that, Burmese women have had rights of marriage, divorce and inheritance. They may choose whom to marry, and even though parents still may arrange marriage, a woman is free to decline if she wishes. Burmese women also have the right to divorce, with or without their husband’s consent. Although polygamy has been and is still practiced in some villages and a few older Burmese families, the husband cannot take second or third wife without the first wife’s permission.

Probably most important, women have a right to inheritance equal to that of men. If a husband dies first the wife inherits the property.  When parents die, male and female children inherit equally. These rights are most unusual in Asia, and even in the United States inheritance rights only became equal in the 20th century. In addition, the rights to underground oil have been given to women, not men, which may prove particularly important in the future development of a country rich in natural resources. These inheritance and marital rights, which Burmese women have had for centuries, are an important clue to their security and dignity. Women are usually the small shopkeepers in the towns and villages and many of the women at the conference were heads of companies, both large and small, as well as journalists, doctors, and government ministers.

Seeking further explanations for this, I found in literature and among the people I interviewed, the most important reason given was the influence of Theravada Buddhism, the official religion of Burma, which is practiced by 95% of the population. The remainder are Muslim, mainly the Rohinga in western Burma, and nominally Christian and some nativist religions. Within Theravada Buddhism, women play an important role and there are nuns as well as monks in the monasteries. There are said to be some 500,000 monks and 75,000 nuns in the country today. However women cannot achieve nirvana or become the new Buddha. Only men can achieve this. Of course women can return as males in a subsequent life and thus achieve nirvana. These beliefs mean that all families try to have their sons spend at least 3 months in a Buddhist monastery at some point during their lives and most have at least one man in the family who is a monk. Women are generally in charge of the other function of Buddhism, “merit making,” or giving, which means any number of things from providing cooked food for the monks to donations of money and entire temples. Uncooked food is supplied to the nuns. This division of labor leaves women in charge of the affairs of the world, the house, and the economy. They take care of business and related affairs in their homes and communities. They are the “givers” and men are the “receivers” in that they are fed and cared for in the monasteries so they may concentrate on spiritual enlightenment.

Women manage some of the larger companies in Burma, but they often publicly state that the companies are their husbands'.  One of the conference presenters heads a retail company with hundreds of outlets throughout the country. She established and runs the company, but when I congratulated her on her success she said, “Oh, it’s my husband's company. I simply manage it.”

Apparently the British colonizers tried to change the role of Burmese women by telling Burmese men that they had lost their wars because they were too feminine and should be more macho like the English. Fortunately they didn’t succeed in changing women’s position, although they did succeed in socializing Burmese men and women to stay silent and keep their thoughts to themselves. The military perpetuated this by instituting more restrictive and masculine systems, including a constitutional amendment specifically designed to prevent Daw Suu Kyi from becoming president by forbidding anyone with non-Burmese relatives from becoming president. Her husband was and her children are British citizens. Women’s participation in government lags behind the private sector unlike many other countries. Parliament has only 6% women and of a reported 600,000 village heads only 66 are women.  Nevertheless women are prominent in Burmese society as they do serve in parliament, head major companies, non-profit organizations and banks and provide hope for the nation's women and a model for other Asian countries to consider.

Jean R. Renshaw is a principal in the consulting firm, AJR International Associates, and a Professor of Management and Organizational Behavior. She has conducted extensive research in Asia, and her publications include Korean Women Managers and Corporate Culture: Challenging Tradition, Choosing Empowerment, Creating Change (Routledge, 2011) and Kimono in the Boardroom: The Invisible Evolution of Japanese Women Managers (Oxford University Press, 1999).

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