‘And Still I Rise’ – The Women on the Frontlines of Burma’s Resistance

16 April 2021

With International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day in the UK having gone by last month, amidst conversations of women’s safety in Britain and the military coup in Burma, I want to reflect on the Burmese women on the frontlines of a resistance movement to restore democracy, many of whom have already sacrificed their lives in their fight for freedom.

From Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng- a Burmese nun who made headlines last month after kneeling before the military Junta, pleading with armed police to ‘shoot’ her, ‘not the children’[1]; to 20 year old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who lost her life last month whilst peacefully against the military coup,[2] to 19-year old Ma Kyal Sin known as ‘Angel’ who was killed during the protests, and has become a symbol of the pro-democracy movement with her ‘Everything will be okay’ T-shirt[3] women of all ages are not backing down in the fight for democracy. According to Women’s League Burma, it is estimated that 60% of protesters are women,[4] many of whom are leaders of the resistance movement. For Burmese women, however, this is nothing new. In spite of the historical efforts of the military junta to quell the voices of women[5] who have often been the torchbearers for justice and human rights for decades in Burma, this new generation of young women, daughters of their mothers, have an insatiable appetite for democracy and justice, and they are not giving it up without a fight.

‘The military… clearly underestimated the resilience and ingenuity of young Burmese who have grown up connected to the world by the internet and will not agree to be dragged back to the past, to the nightmares of military rule that their parents all told them about,’ -Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch[6].


How Did the Protests Start?

Following a landslide re-election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won, defeating pro-military opposition groups, army forces alleged voter fraud (despite the election commission saying that there was no evidence to support these claims)  and backed the pro-military opposition who were demanding a rerun of the vote. On the morning of February 1st, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, MPs rounded up, and a military coup was well underway[7]. According to local activists, a couple days after the coup factory workers held a general strike, in which the majority of strikers were women, and this ‘catalysed the later protests happening’ in Burma[8]. In response to the protests there has been a violent military crackdown likened to ‘meeting the legal threshold for crimes against humanity’ according to a top UN official[9].

In spite of this, progress was being made for Burmese women in democracy in the 2020 November elections: women’s representation improved from less than 5% in 2014 to just over 15% in November 2020[10], however the military’s exclusion of women and discriminatory practices has been alleged to have helped the military junta maintain their grip on power[11].

Women’s rights have never been part of the military agenda’ said May Sabe Phyu – a women’s right’s activist from Burma’s Gender Equality Network- a coalition of women’s organisations across the country[12]. This time, women are standing at the front and, in many cases, they are leading the protests.’ [13]


The Women on the Frontlines of the Pro-Democracy Protests

May Sabe Phyu, however is not alone, she is one of many women’s activists on the frontlines of the pro-democracy protests. ‘The participation of women from all walks of life is unprecedented… especially young women’ from ‘Generation-Z… organising across the spectrum’[14], said Tin Tin Nyo of the Burmese Women’s Union (BMU)- a multi-ethnic organisation working to promote the rights of women across the country. Equally Naw K’nyaw Paw, general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), an indigenous women’s group founded in 1999, has said ‘women are constantly the one’s making changes, they are bold, they have courage and they speak truth to power.’[15]

Nevertheless, in spite of the heroic efforts of countless Burmese women, they still need the international community’s help: “without their [the international community’s] continued pressure against the military and their active support of the pro-democracy movement, we may break down,” said women’s rights activist, Tin Tin Nyo of the BMU[16].

The Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a Burmese gender organisation committed to gender equality and justice, has been one of HART’s proud partners since 2004. SWAN is a founding member of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), an umbrella women’s organization comprising 13 women’s groups from Burma. Part of SWAN’s work involves providing emergency assistance and a safe haven for women and children facing violence[17], as well as working with the aforementioned women’s groups including the Gender Equality Network, and the BMU and KWO under the Women’s League of Burma. According to an open letter send out to UNSCR and UNHCR just last month by SWAN, alongside the women’s organisations from which the above female activists spoke out, it has been reported that women human right’s defenders are subject to sexual violence and harassment for exercising their right to participate in public demonstration[18]. It is clear now, more than ever that the women of Burma need your help. ‘Everyone must know that this is our last fight. If we don’t win this time, they will win forever. That is why I will not give up.’ said May Sabe Phyu from the Gender Equality network.

HART stands in solidarity with the women leading Burma’s pro-democracy movement, including those like Angel who have already sacrificed their lives fighting for democracy.

In the word’s of Maya Angelou:

‘You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.’[19]


By Chantell Asante, a member of the HART Student Ambassador Programme


To help the women of SWAN rise above the current crisis they face in their fight for democracy, please donate here.


Learn more:

Visit the SWAN website

Read SWAN and the Women’s Organisations of Burma’s Open Letter

Follow SWAN on Twitter and Facebook

Visit the Women’s League of Burma website


[1] Tomlinson, H. (2021) ‘Shoot me not the children’: nun becomes new symbol of Burmese resistance [Internet].The Times. Available at: <> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[2]  The Guardian (2021) Myanmar protester shot in head during police crackdown dies [Internet]. The Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[3] Sidhu, S et al. (2021) She was shot dead, her body dug up and her grave filled with cement. But her fight is not over [Internet]. CNN. Available at: < – CNN> [Accessed 04/04/2020]

[4] Women’s Organisations and Network of Myanmar (2021) Women’s organizations and network of Myanmar/Burma call on the UN Security Council and Human Rights Bodies to hold the military junta

accountable for their continued violence against protestors and human rights defenders, especially women [Internet]. SWAN. Available at: <> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[5] Bardall, G., Bjarnegård, E. (2021) The exclusion of women in Myanmar politics helped fuel the military coup [Internet]. The Conversation. Available at:<> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[6] CNN (n 3)

[7] Cuddy, A. (2021) Myanmar coup: What is happening and why? [Internet]. BBC. Available at: <> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[8] Aguilar,M., Quadrini, M. (2021)‘We’re unstoppable’: Meet the women leading Myanmar’s protests [Internet]. openDemocracy. Available at: <> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[9]  CNN

[10] The Conversation

[11]  The Conversation

[12] openDemocracy

[13] openDemocracy

[14]  openDemocracy

[15]  openDemocracy

[16]  openDemocracy

[17] HART (2021) Shan Women’s Action Network [Internet] Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. Available at:<> [Accessed 04/04/2021]

[18] Women’s Organisations and Network of Myanmar

[19] Maya Angelou. (1978) Still I rise by Maya Angelou [Internet] Poetry Foundation. Available at: <Still I Rise by Maya Angelou | Poetry Foundation> [Accessed 04/04/2021]


Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.


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