A Talk with Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe
Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe was appointed Ministry of Women, Youths and Children Affairs (MoWYCA) of the National Unity Government (NUG) on April 16th, 2021. She entered politics after more than a decade of activism on the frontlines. She belongs to the Karen ethnic group and became active in the empowerment Karen Women’s Action Group in 2003, focusing on freedom, equality and gender rights. From 2013 to 2019, she chaired the Women Organisation’s Network, active in all of Myanmar.
In parallel, she served from 2015 to 2020 as a Member of Parliament at the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities), having won the 10th constituency of Yangon Region as an NLD candidate. Following her re-election in 2020, she was nominated as Karen Ethnic Affairs Minister for Yangon Region but was not allowed to fulfil this mandate due to the February 1st, 2021 military coup led by General Min Aung Hlaing.
To avoid arrest or worse as the SAC is targeting all politicians and activists since its seizure of power, she moved back to Karen state with thousands of other activists and politicians. She now has to live and work underground and in exile. She speaks with Visual Rebellion Myanmar about the suffering faced by women and children, the NUG actions to help and strengthen affected communities, as well as the need for the world’s attention to her country’s crisis.
What are the main issues faced by women in Myanmar? How did those challenges evolve since the coup?
It has always been hard for women in Myanmar because it’s a patriarchal society, historically under military rule and culturally conservative. After the most recent coup, the situation became even worse because military power has greatly increased and the military use rape as a weapon to oppress the opposition groups. Whenever they burn the houses, they attack the communities, they find women who become victims of rape.
The military use a lot of different patterns of rape, such as raping women in front of their husbands or their fathers. They did it before in the ethnic states, now they do it even in the cities. When they arrest people, especially women, and take them to police stations, they humiliate them in public, and often touch and rape them.
How can civil society groups operate at the moment and reach people in need?
It is very difficult because the junta arrested CSO (Civil Society Organisations) leaders, and most of them and women activists had to move to the border areas. Some of them had to establish their offices in Thailand. The NUG is working with CSOs through an understanding with local authorities to distribute aid material inside Myanmar
What are the current actions the NUG is able to take on the ground?
We have many programs focused on health, education, youth activities, as well as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), pregnant women, and mother and child development support. We have 580 Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) staff who don’t want to work for the junta and who are working for our Ministry on the ground. We also formed a Women’s Network with representatives from all of Myanmar states and regions working together to implement those programs quickly and effectively. Some of them are IDP camp leaders and one of the main missions of the network is to help IDPs. They send us information about their needs, difficult child deliveries or injuries, military raids or burned houses and then we can send money or appropriate support. Thanks to technology, they can reach us safely through the Signal application. This network’s regular meetings are also attended by women MPs who still work in their constituencies and existing political parties in the ethnic states, such as the Karen Women Organisation in Kayin state or the Karenni Women Organisation in Kayah state.
How is the MoWYCA coordinating with other ministries to tackle cross-cutting issues such as the situation of marginalised groups or refugees?
We have a weekly inter-ministerial meeting where every NUG Ministry attends and shares the information they have gathered. Of course, we work a lot on crosscutting issues with the NUG Ministry of Human rights as well as the NUG Ministry of Health and the NUG Ministry of Education, as the human rights aspects, health issues and the specific needs of women, youth and children have to be addressed holistically.
Do you have a specific program for women serving in the People Defense Forces (PDF)?
We estimate that 5 to 10 % of PDF are women but we never give our true figures because our enemy will then know our strength. The exact number of fighters is a sensitive information part of military operations. For women fighting on the frontline, we give sexual health education, we provide menstruation pads as well as experience-sharing and counseling sessions.
We also have a counseling online service called Taing Pin Phaw which is led by medical doctors, so people can use this service if they want help with their mental health issues. Whoever can call and get a consultation.
How about financial resources of the MoWYCA? What are the needs? Do they get any support from international agencies or only donations from people?
Our budget is made up of both donations from international partners and from our people. But our needs are very high, our country is in crisis, so it’s not enough and we need much more to be able to operate effectively.
As of late September 2022, the military burnt close to 40 000 houses in the country so we need funding for rehabilitation, protection of women and we also struggle to deal with maintaining support to defectors who need food and shelter.
The wives of defectors have already formed their own network, Pyithu Sitar Zani Myar (Wives of People’s Soldiers) so we meet with them, financially support them and organize vocational training such as cooking, sewing, handicrafts so they can make a living out of the army bases. We are also helping the defectors through those networks as most of them come with their families. In the ethnic areas, the EAOs are taking care of the defectors by supporting and schooling, so the children of defectors are either welcomed in ethnic groups or in NUG-run schools.
Do you have any comment on the airstrike by the junta on a school in Depayin, Sagaing mid-September 2022? Did your Ministry manage to gather data on those crimes and what do you hope to do with it? How can the world help to stop those war crimes on children?
It happened on September 16th and it is a really dark day for our country because more than ten children were killed and twenty more are injured. Teachers were arrested and brought to the military camp. The army said they would send them to the hospital but it’s very doubtful that they did, as we know that they killed one of the teachers on the way. It shows the extreme brutality of the military.
As soon as we heard this news, we sent information to the United Nations (UN) so they can talk about this issue during the UN General Assembly. We also sent help to evacuate the villagers who witnessed the airstrike and sent money to the families of injured children.
We are still very worried for the people, children and adults, who were arrested by the military in the aftermath of the airstrike. International organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children, World Vision should raise their voices to help release them.
How would you describe female political participation in Myanmar, from representation of elected politicians to the civic involvement of women?
I believe that in this revolution time, there are many sad stories but we also have a lot of hopeful stories. One of them is that people now accept leadership by women. So many women are active in the strike, the Women Network is involved in helping IDPs everywhere…
It’s also the first time in the history of Myanmar that there is a Minister for Women and Youth. In the NUG Cabinet, there are seven women Ministers and in our Ministry, we have 65% of female staff. It’s a changing of mindset for the whole country. I think this momentum when the gender norms have been broken should be kept all along the journey until victory. I think we should take this opportunity to bring more female leadership and acknowledge their participation in history.
How did the revolution change the collective mindset into being favorable to women in positions of leadership?
The revolution started with two young women, Esther Ze Naw Bamvo – who is Kachin – and Ei Thinzar Maung – who is Shan-ni and who is my deputy Minister now, as they led people on the first anti-military protest in Yangon five days after the coup.
So people know that these young women are brave and capable and to this day, women are on the frontline in the PDFs as well as in the CDM. One of the prominent strike groups is the Women Alliance Burma which leads a lot of campaigns. We have to give them the credit for change because they are change-makers.
[NB: On February 5th, workers started campaigning against the coup inside factories by wearing their uniforms with the logo of their union and singing revolutionary songs, such as “အရေး ကြီး ပြီ ” (A Yay Kyi Pee), a long-used union chant calling for solidarity in critical times. The song became a very popular hit as mass protests began in the main cities. In some factories, tensions rose, and managers called the police and military to handle the insubordination.
SAC authorities came and requested names of union leaders, their personal information and their address. In the middle of the night on February 5th, police came to the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM) office and checked the building. Luckily, no one was in the office, as workers were conducting their meeting about their next plan in a different place.
As they thought that police would arrest union leaders in the coming days, all of the FGWM staged a protest the next day. Around 5,000 workers pressured drivers of buses and trucks to take them from the industrial zones to the first checkpoint on the way to downtown Yangon and came to Hledan, a middle-class area. February 6th was the first day of protests on Yangon streets, and the movement then spread all over the country.
Unionists took a leading role in the movement as they had experience with strikes, protests and navigating threats. They were supported from the beginning by two main groups of students, including the one led by Esther Ze Naw Bamvo and Ei Thinzar Maung]
How to ensure a greater political representation of women in the next government?
We need concrete policies in our Constitution and the Federal Democracy Charter, the body in charge of the drafting committed to a 30% quota of women participation in politics. Our Ministry and the NUG as a whole also have gender-knowledge and guarantee that they will conduct follow-up and not just pay lip service.
So we have to bring this new momentum into the new country. We also need international pressure. Some international organisations have the rule that when they give funding, gender-balance has to be respected, so there should be this kind of discipline in the future.
How is the MoWYCA Ministry supporting those steps to guarantee these rights in the Constitution currently crafted by pro-democracy actors?
Our Ministry is part of the Committee of Transitional Constitution and we also work with the
National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). We have regular meetings with a joint committee about gender policy. There we make sure that solid gender equality provisions are present in the Constitution project.
In the current situation, what is the way forward for more women from diverse backgrounds to be able to enter the political scene?
We currently have a series of trainings for young women as well as women’s rights training and gender-issues training with CSOs. We are developing policy papers and guidelines that we can use for decision-making on all most important issues, such as the case of Women IDPs during the conflict.
What are the main activities of the youth department in your Ministry?
The Youth Affairs department is active in many fundraising campaigns, as well as the organization of strikes and vocational training. The director is only 25 years old.
What is your personal goal?
I am very happy and proud to serve my people in this special situation because they have been under military rule for more than seventy years so they deserve freedom, democracy and development. People are now struggling with basic needs like food and medicine and even have to run to save their lives.
I would like the international community to not close its eyes, to not shut its mouth. The military is perpetrating genocide against our people, killing children, raping women, attacking schools and hospitals. We need to take action against this barbarous military so please accept and recognize us as a government
How would recognition by other states and the UN help you on the ground?
If the UN recognizes us as the legitimate government of Myanmar, we could easily receive international support and funding, we could transform the military into a professional army, we could be a peaceful and honorable country in ASEAN as well as in the UN.
Now the world is changing a lot, there are other crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan. In Burma, we have been suffering for seventy years so please do not forget us because we are still fighting and we will never give up. Until the end, we will fight so please stay with us and support us.
If we were given the means, we could fully control the situation. More than 50% of the country is now controlled by the NUG and EAO allies so if we get more support from the international community, we can control the whole country and we can build a federal democracy which doesn’t discriminate against any religion, race or belief and give prosperity to the people.
Now the military can only control the big cities and fight with jet warplanes in the countryside. So first other countries should stop selling fuel to the junta. This is why NUG should be the legitimate government so they can control this sort of issue and save our people.
Read a Burmese version of this interview on our partner’s website (My Constitution – International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)