Soon after the outbreak of the coup in Myanmar, the Economist reported that the Tatmadaw “turns the clock back a decade”. In response, the public and various anti-military groups carried out various forms of resistance and contention, ranging from peaceful protests, economic boycotts and civil disobedience, to armed confrontation, which later became known as “Myanmar’s Spring Revolution”. At first glance, this revolution appeared to be more inclusive than Myanmar’s past anti-military protests, as women appeared to have a greater degree of participation. However, a closer look reveals that patriarchal norms still persist. This article aims to illustrate that Myanmar’s Spring Revolution is not the first revolution against tyranny in which these phenomena have occurred. At the very least, it appears to be similar to China’s 1911 Revolution and its aftermath.
On February 16, 2023, the International Crisis Group published a briefing report entitled “Breaking Gender and Age Barriers amid Myanmar’s Spring Revolution” highlighting the fact that there are still numerous examples and patterns of gender stereotypes and misogyny within Myanmar’s revolutionary groups. Not only is the National Unity Government (NUG), the leading revolutionary organization in Myanmar, a male-dominated institution, but women revolutionaries are also “commissioned at a lower rank than their male counterparts” in many scenarios. They are often relegated to jobs behind the scenes and mainly confined to administrative and support roles such as helping to deliver aid and care for injured soldiers and the displaced. Worse still, although they are active participants behind the scenes, their contributions often go unrecognized. The report also indicates that some active participants and supporters of Myanmar’s anti-military revolution even believe that establishing a male-dominated revolutionary force is not entirely without justification. This is because they presuppose that women are inferior in terms of fighting in the frontline battlefields and assuming leadership in times of war, or they think that it is not the right time to address the issue of gender equality because it will divert attention away from confronting the Tatmadaw.
While such a development trend is disappointing to the advocates of gender equality, it is hardly surprising in a patriarchal society like Myanmar. Interestingly, historical evidence suggests that many revolutions against tyranny have experienced these imperfections. China’s 1911 Revolution is a salient example. Succinctly speaking, China’s 1911 Revolution was supposed to challenge the monarchical system and longstanding gender norms and hierarchies simultaneously. Intellectual publications, such as The Women's Bell written by Jin Tianhe and An Alarm to Awaken the Age written by Chen Tianhua, argued that women should have the same political rights and duties as men in their participation in the anti-monarchy revolution. The unified revolutionary organization Tongmenghui which was founded in 1905, nominally advocated equality between men and women, with its leader Sun Yat-sen proclaiming that the practice of foot binding and women’s slavery should be abolished after overthrowing the monarchical system. In practice, there was progress towards greater inclusivity, as the recruitment of women to the revolutionary force expanded significantly. They contributed by making bombs, crafting homemade weapons, delivering aid, raising money, facilitating communication and liaison within the revolutionary groups and participating in espionage. Some women were also active on the revolutionary front lines, such as attempting to assassinate a few Manchu officials, with some of them becoming martyred revolutionaries. Qiu Jin was a prominent figure in this. She, Chen Xiefen, He Xiangning, and Tang Qunying were active Chinese feminists who insisted on bearing the same political duty as men in order to strive for gender equality and save their country. Although some thought that women revolutionaries of that era were too weak and not sufficiently well-trained, their passion for participating in the revolution, in defiance of their parents and other relatives, seized much attention.
However, despite the creation of new avenues for women to exert their influence in the period of the 1911 Revolution, progress toward greater inclusivity was stalled after its initial success. Pao Chia-lin, the author of the academic article “Women’s Thought in the Period of the Xinhai Revolution”, indicated that women revolutionaries faced an overwhelming, practical dilemma after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. On one hand, they could not or were not willing to go back home. On the other hand, post-1911 Revolution society still tended to shunt women aside, since many occupations were still not open to them. Talented females were confined to work in factories that stunted opportunities for their advancement. They were assigned jobs closely associated with “women’s affairs” in the minds of most Chinese of that era. Moreover, the article entitled “The New Women I Saw”, written by Mo Jipeng, highlights that many female revolutionaries were impoverished, distressed and frustrated; some of whom even committed suicide. Similarly, Zhao Liancheng, a Chinese feminist who participated in the 1911 Revolution, recorded some relevant details in her writing “Guangdong women participated in Tongmenghui activities before and after liberation”. For instance, Huang Fuyong and Deng Mufang, two members of “Shanghai Women Northern Expedition Team” who were reluctant to stay within their patriarchal community, decided to run away from home, yet their daily life continued to be poor. Eventually, they met up at the Dinghu Mountain in Zhaoqing City and committed suicide by jumping into the Feishui Pool. Likewise, Liang Quan-fang, another member of “Shanghai Women Northern Expedition Team”, was unemployed and became a prostitute in Hong Kong.
It should be noted that many regarded women’s participation as being secondary during the period of the anti-monarchical revolution. For instance, Tongmenghui’s media publication entitled “The Minbao”, which literally means The People’s News, never solicited articles about women’s rights. Worse still, despite bearing arms and risking their lives, the role of women in overthrowing the Qing dynasty often went unacknowledged. Admittedly, Sun Yat-sen repeatedly recognized the contribution of Chinese women to the 1911 Revolution in his writing. However, his promise of granting them equal rights to political participation was empty because the conservative faction of the Founding Fathers of the Republic of China dominated the agenda of post-revolutionary political arrangements. Zhang Taiyan, a prominent figure of the conservative faction, criticized women’s requests for political participation as making trouble out of nothing. Consequently, the Republic of China, which sought to replace the monarchy with more equitable governance structures, adopted policies that discriminated against women and reinforced gender norms. For instance, Qiao Suling’s book titled Education and Women: Women’s Education and the Awakening of Intellectual Women in Modern China (1840-1921) mentions that only a few seat quotas were allocated for women in the Provisional Assembly of Guangdong Province, and women legislators found it difficult to gain the respect of male colleagues.
It is certainly true that some women’s political groups were formed shortly after the 1911 Revolution. These included the Women's Suffrage Comrades Alliance founded by Lin Zongsu and the Women’s Suffrage Alliance founded by Tang Qunying. However, their efforts in striving for women’s political rights faced considerable setbacks. In February 1912, the Provisional Parliament of the Republic of China planned to remove an article specifying gender equality in the Provisional Constitution of the Republic of China. In response, Tang Qunying and a few other women activists broke the glass windows of the Nanjing Provisional Parliament House, kicked out the guards who came to stop them and quarreled with parliamentarians in March of that year. The then Speaker of the Parliament, Lin Sen, pleaded with Sun Yat-sen to send troops for protection. The women activists grudgingly agreed to leave only after Sun’s mediation in the matter. However, their political leverage was further diminished after Sun formally resigned from the position of provisional president in April 1912. In August of the same year, Song Jiaren, the Acting President of Kuomintang, deleted the content specifying gender equality from Kuomintang’s political platform, in order to secure the support of conservative forces. This time, Tang reacted by slapping Song and Lin Sen. Later, Tang accepted Sun’s arguments for promoting women’s education as a pre-requisite for striving towards gender equality in the future, and visited Song and Lin to express her apology for her actions. However, Tang’s militant approach to women’s political rights had antagonized the conservative majority, which expressed mainstream opinions against women’s political participation. Eventually, electoral laws were promulgated which only enfranchised Chinese male citizens aged 21 years and over.
There are competing interpretations of the reasons why Chinese women remained largely excluded from formal political power in the 1910s. The mainstream explanation is that there were still entrenched conservative social attitudes and practical barriers in that era. Ma Gengcun’s book entitled The History of Chinese Modern Women emphasized that only a minority of Chinese women in that era were feminists. The majority, unfortunately, still preserved the patriarchal gender norms and were thus held back by self-imposed restrictions. Meanwhile, not all Chinese feminists of that era adopted a progressive approach to women’s political rights. For instance, the Shenzhou United Women's Assistance Society prioritized the promotion of equal opportunity in education for both sexes so as to make women better prepared for political participation in the future. More radically, Alison Sile Chen, a contemporary Chinese feminist, published a commentary in 2015 to argue that Tang Qunying was betrayed by male revolutionaries.
Nonetheless, one should not forget that pushback from political conservatives was the key factor keeping Chinese women out of formal politics in the 1910s. Yuan Shikai, the successor of Sun Yat-sen as the second provisional president of the Republic of China, rolled back much of the progress on political inclusivity made during the 1911 Revolution. He aimed to restore the monarchical system and revitalize Chinese traditional culture thus returning attitudes toward women to the traditional era. Although Yuan failed to achieve his monarchical dream, China was moving towards “Warlordism” whereby modern Chinese history became dominated by armed struggle, which was perceived primarily as a male act. Male civilian-politicians, without the backup of military force, were under serious security threats. Some argue that it was difficult to make gender inclusion a priority in this context because leaders did not see it as contributing to the armed struggle.
Mark Twain’s phrase, “History does not repeat itself but it often rhymes” may be appropriate in this context. The development of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution was not identical to China’s 1911 Revolution, but they look similar in some respects. First, and beyond doubt, the primary goal of both was to end tyranny. Second, whilst tyrannical governments are often blamed for vetoing any attempt at moderate reform and suppressing the spread of information which is unfavorable to them, revolutionaries also deliberately spread misinformation under the guise of strategic consideration. This is supported by Naw Thersea in the Myanmar’s context and by a constitutional law professor at Peking University Law School Zhang Qianfan in his 2019 academic publication entitled “The Failure of Establishing Social Contract: From Xinhai to May Fourth”.
Crucially, the NUG in Myanmar has political popularity but lacks military force with which to fight against the brutal Tatmadaw alone. It has little choice but to coordinate with various Ethnic Armed Organizations, which acknowledge the leadership status of NUG nominally, but overwhelmingly have their own political ambitions. It is thus worrying that the Tatmadaw will either tighten its control over Myanmar’s civilians, or Myanmar will enter into a period of struggle between warlords. In either case, military patriarchy will very likely prevail, thus reinforcing masculinity and the status quo of exclusion.
T-Fai Yeung is a researcher at the Global Studies Institute in Hong Kong, a frequent contributor to inmediahk.net, a guest contributor to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Linhe Zaobao.