By Victoria Ojeme
While the rest of the world awaited the end of the long January of 2021, on February 1, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup against the democratically elected government of Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained along with other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in early morning raids.
The army said it had carried out the detentions in response to “election fraud”, handing power to military chief Min Aung Hlaing and imposing a state of emergency for one year, according to a statement on a military-owned television station.
A verified Facebook page for Suu Kyi’s party published comments it said had been written in anticipation of a coup and which quoted her as saying people should protest against the military takeover.
The generals made their move hours before parliament had been due to sit for the first time since the NLD’s landslide win in a Nov. 8 general election viewed as a referendum on Suu Kyi’s fledgling democratic rule.
Supporters of the military celebrated the coup, parading through Yangon in pickup trucks and waving national flags but democracy activists were horrified according to a Reuters’ report.
The overwhelming majority won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 8, 2020 Myanmar parliamentary election after more than two and a half decades in which she was largely held under house arrest, experts said represented perhaps the world’s most extraordinary political turnabout since Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s President in 1994 after being jailed for nearly thirty years as a political prisoner.
Although barred from the presidency by constitution drafted during military rule, the NLD controlled parliament elected Suu Kyi’s close ally, Htin Kyaw, as President who in turn appointed her as State Counsellor (de facto Prime Minister) and Foreign Secretary, confirming she remains the most powerful politician in the country.
Suu Kyi is only one of a number women who are the daughters or widows of male leaders, most of whom had also been assassinated while serving as their country’s leaders or while heading up the opposition, who headed up pro-democracy groups in several Asian countries and ultimately took political power: the most famous examples are Corazon C. Aquino in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.
A closer look at Myanmar deepens this mystery of Suu Kyi’s leadership because, like many other Asian countries, it is often seen to be highly patriarchal. Inadequate employment opportunities as well as limited access to health care and education are among the many problems facing women in the country which received a low ranking (150) in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender-related Development Index (GDI).
But of course, her success as opposition leader and later as the country’s “leader above the president” is also due to her own determination and endurance despite years of military repression. As Myanmar’s de facto leader she had to deal with the continued role the military plays in the country’s politics, ongoing ethnic-conflict, anti-Muslim chauvinism among radical Buddhist monks and raising standards of living in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.
“But the fact she has become the most important politician in Myanmar against very long odds is in large part due to the qualities of moral leadership she is seen to have inherited and built upon as a female dynastic leader,” said Professor Mark Thompson who is head of the Department of Asian and International Studies (AIS) as well as director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC).
Monday’s ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi begs the century-long question of female political representation in a patriarchal world. In South Korea, Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female president, was removed from office after she was impeached. Park left office just six months after the first female president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and forced out for manipulating the federal budget.
The ousters of these women from top offices in populous nations in such quick succession made a big dent in the already tiny proportion of female heads of government and state. A report from the Pew Research Center found that only a little over a third of the world’s countries have ever had a woman in the top office, and only 15 currently do.
Compared to men, these women didn’t last long in office. In 31 of the 56 countries, women have been in the top role for five years or less, and in 10 of them, they only stayed one year.
The average length of tenure for the world’s leaders of nations is far higher. On top of the 56 nations who’ve had at least one year of female leadership, there are 13 countries who’ve had women as heads of state or government for less than a year, usually as interim or acting leaders. Ecuador and Madagascar, for instance, each got the benefits of women as leaders for two days.
Women are very likely to be brought in as interim leaders or likely-to-fail scapegoats after men have caused a scandal or otherwise mucked up; for example, Theresa May. This is known in business and politics as the “glass cliff.”
Of the 15 women heading countries around the world, eight are the first women to hold that position in their nation. And around the world, women are more likely to ascend to the top leadership position in government if it’s an appointed prime minister spot instead of an elected president. In parliamentary systems, people usually vote for political parties instead of individual candidates, and party leadership members are often more amenable to female leaders than the general public is.
“On the national stage, competing to be seen as both tough and human, a woman faces harsher criticism and highly gendered double-binds. As a prime minister, she only needs to prove herself worthy to her party members, so skills like policy aptitude and interpersonal politicking come more into play,” Christina Cauterucci, a Slate staff writer said.
Most of the world’s female heads of state and government were replaced by men, and most countries who’ve had a woman at the top have only ever had one. It’s been said that a country’s second top female leader is the true harbinger of progress in gender equity, because the failings and qualities of the first are often ascribed to her gender. Once there’s been more than one woman in charge, the idea of female leadership is less remarkable.
This is why the ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi is so troubling for the future of gender justice in the country.
The National Democratic Institute’s Raissa Tatad-Hazell told Fortune in 2016 that Park’s scandal “could be used by those who aren’t big fans of equitable representation of women” to discourage the advancement of future female political leaders.
The campaign for the impeachment of Rousseff was as viscerally misogynist as the campaign against Hillary Clinton: Marc Hertzman of the Cut reported last April that Rousseff’s wardrobe, hair, and body were mocked; decals of her image with her legs spread wide were placed around cars’ gas caps; and she was called a prostitute and every imaginable gendered slur.
“The issue here isn’t that Park and Rousseff are innocent—they aren’t. It’s that men—including Rousseff’s replacement, Michel Temer—have committed similar deeds or much worse and kept their political office,” Christina Cauterucci said.
It is impossible to say whether Aung San Suu Kyi, Park or Rousseff would have avoided their fates if they were men.
But it is clear that female leaders, in the rare cases that they are elected or appointed at all, face higher bars for success and, in many cases, seem set up to leave office quickly or fail altogether.
Then, countries are left mapping one failure onto an entire gender, and aspiring female politicians are left with one fewer role model to help them solve the ever-challenging puzzle of how to get to the top.