Myanmar’s women have assumed an unprecedented leadership role in the pro-democracy resistance since the 2021 coup. From nonviolent protest movements to fighting in People’s Defense Forces (PDF) to the National Unity Government (NUG), women have been instrumental in the fight against the ruling junta’s brutality and oppression. But as Myanmar’s network of resistance groups slowly weakens the junta’s grip, resistance leaders are now faced with a daunting task: How do you re-establish security and stability in a country long plagued by civil conflict?

Myanmar resistance fighters at a base in the Kayin State of Myanmar. March 8, 2022. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
Myanmar resistance fighters at a base in the Kayin State of Myanmar. March 8, 2022. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

In many places, the NUG is in the process of creating new security institutions from scratch. In other areas, ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) have long-standing security institutions that face limited capacity amid a war. As Myanmar looks to the future, these security institutions will not only protect communities for the remainder of the war but will also set important precedents for the future of governance in Myanmar.

The people of Myanmar will need to reconcile the violent history of its former security institutions with the opportunity for a peaceful future. For these new security services to live up to the resistance’s democratic aims, they will need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The meaningful inclusion of women in security sector reform could disrupt cycles of violence and offer a foundational step toward rectifying Myanmar’s history of widespread police brutality, violence against ethnic minorities and women, and culture of impunity.

Women’s Historically Marginalized Role in Security Institutions

Young women have been instrumental to the resistance movement, with some fighting in the all-women PDF unit Myaung Women Warriors and others joining fledgling security and police groups to help stifle injustice in Burmese society. In urban areas, where men are regularly targeted by the regime under suspicion of arranging logistics for the resistance, women help to move supplies to the front lines.

Even within the context of a transformative resistance, however, women in Myanmar still face many long-standing challenges. Cultural traditions and norms have historically restricted women from security roles. For example, policewomen that rode with policemen in the community faced harsh treatment, and it’s considered inappropriate for women to work the overnight shift at police stations. According to interviews with former Myanmar Police Force (MPF) officers now serving in the resistance, wives of MPF police officers sometimes see single policewomen as a threat to their marriages — even pressuring station leaders to reassign policewomen to new stations if they dislike someone.

The practices of security institutions like the Myanmar Police Force reinforced these cultural norms. Recruiting practices in MPF held women to higher education standards than their male counterparts. Jobs given to women offered fewer benefits, and men assumed most leadership positions. In 2019, less than 4 percent of the country’s 72,000 officers were women. This lack of representation did not serve the reputation or competency of the MPF. At the time, civilian women reported a lack of trust in the police, especially when it came to reporting domestic violence. The MPF also regularly attacked and detained transwomen and other gender minorities. Post-coup, the MPF has continued this legacy of gender-based violence against the resistance.

The Emergence of Pro-Democracy Security Institutions

Since the Myanmar Police Force turned its guns on civilians during the 2021 coup, civilians and resistance fighters have stepped in to provide security for their communities.

In contrast to the junta’s history of — and impunity for — violence against civilians, these new local security groups can increase prospects for justice by documenting junta crimes and establishing transparent security institutions that are responsive to community needs. For example, the Karenni State Police, a new pro-democracy police force, has coordinated its investigation of the Christmas Eve Massacre with the NUG Ministry of Human Rights and provides recurring updates to the community through public press announcements.

These community policing groups have made impressive progress in the face of great adversity. But they still have many challenges ahead, as women in pro-democracy police groups still assume the additional labor of fighting traditional gender roles while also fighting a war. So far, these women are rarely given the opportunity or the facilities for operational work like patrols and arrests — reinforcing the idea that policing and community security are domains of masculinity. Similarly, women compose less than 15 percent of both ERO and pro-democracy police groups and remain underrepresented in leadership positions.

That said, women in pro-democracy police groups have indicated greater perceptions of equality working alongside their male counterparts, offering hope for future reforms. As one policewoman shared: “I want more women’s participation in Myanmar [policing] because the majority of Myanmar women are deep-rooted in shame and fear… I like people to know that there are many things that women can do in policing.”

As the resistance looks to defy and upend the legacies of the junta, it must promote principles of transparency and justice in its security institutions — starting with the meaningful inclusion of women. In an interview with USIP, a policewoman remarked that “Women also have immense capabilities. In order to promote gender equality, more women should be in policing, it will contribute to the interaction with the public.”

Women’s inclusion can also bolster operational effectiveness: Police units with women demonstrate higher levels of task cohesion and policewomen are less likely to use excessive force and abuse civilians than policemen.

How to Engage Women in Community Policing

This is a rare moment to rebuild security institutions that have historically perpetrated horrific violence against the people of Myanmar. Considering that women, especially ethnic minority women, are often the victims of this violence, they deserve a central role in shaping the future of these institutions.

At a local level, police leadership should demonstrate respect for women. Additionally, police units could convene community dialogues to ask the question “What should policing look like?” and ensure women have a voice in revisioning what community security entails. Community leaders should also reflect and redefine what they believe is the purpose of community policing, so that the resulting system honors the security interests of an inclusive community.

At a strategic level, the NUG’s security institutions and other pro-democracy security institutions consider adopting the principles of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in their policies. Building security institutions in line with the WPS agenda — such as expanding existing ERO police initiatives to recruit more women — could further legitimize the nascent NUG government and ERO security institutions in the eyes of their fellow citizens and the international community.

And beyond creating further contrast with the junta’s brutal, male-dominated and unaccountable security institutions, the WPS agenda offers a way for these institutions to exceed the limitations of less-effective gender strategies that are often critically referred to as “add women and stir.”

The inclusion of women should not reinforce the legacies of previous patriarchal security institutions. Rather, including women in crafting accountability and transparency measures, such as codes of conduct and interim judiciary systems, can help build more effective institutions from the bottom up. Shifting perceptions and recognizing the power of including Myanmar women in security is an actionable way to build the strength of the resistance.

Hkawn Htoi is a program manager for the Myanmar team at USIP.

Related Publications

Myanmar’s Crisis Looms Over the ASEAN Summit

Myanmar’s Crisis Looms Over the ASEAN Summit

Thursday, September 7, 2023

By: Brian Harding;  Jason Tower

This week, Indonesia hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and its related meetings with dialogue partners, including the East Asia Summit, in Jakarta. The three-day affair was bogged down by the bloc’s continued inability to sort through internal divisions over member-state Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, which has allowed the ruling junta’s violence and support for criminal enterprises to fester into transnational problems. Meanwhile, the absence of several leaders from major ASEAN partners, such as China’s Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, further dampened proceedings.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Ask the Experts: How to Stop Transnational Crime Networks in Southeast Asia

Ask the Experts: How to Stop Transnational Crime Networks in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

By: Andrew Cheatham;  Jason Tower

In recent years, transnational criminal networks have built a web of influence throughout Southeast Asia to facilitate their illicit gambling, fraud and human trafficking operations. And while these networks emanate from several countries in the region — particularly Myanmar — their reach is global. In the United States alone, victims have already lost several billion dollars to scams. USIP’s Andrew Cheatham and Jason Tower discuss how these large-scale networks operate, how the 2021 military coup in Myanmar offered the networks a safe haven for their illicit activities, and how the United States can take the lead on addressing this issue.

Type: Blog

Justice, Security & Rule of Law

Is Myanmar’s Junta Turning a Corner?

Is Myanmar’s Junta Turning a Corner?

Thursday, August 10, 2023

By: Priscilla A. Clapp;  Ye Myo Hein

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Four Takeaways from the ASEAN Summit

Four Takeaways from the ASEAN Summit

Thursday, July 20, 2023

By: Brian Harding;  Alex Stephenson;  Jason Tower

Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered last week in Jakarta, with a range of critical challenges to address. Chief among those issues was the crisis in member state Myanmar, which the bloc is divided on how to approach. China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea were also a key topic at the summit, with Beijing and ASEAN pledging to reach an agreement on a long-stalled non-binding code of conduct.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

View All Publications