As armored vehicles swarmed the streets of the Myanmar capital on Feb. 1, photojournalist Nyein Lay pretended to take pictures of flower gardens and statues. Her colleague, also a woman, smiled and posed. Just a couple of girls on holiday—or so the troops captured on camera in the background may have thought.
In one photo, a man with a machine gun glowers at them not ten paces away. A different reporter may have lost their equipment, or even gotten arrested. But in a country where soldiers are used to equating combat reporting with “man’s work,” he did nothing.
“In Myanmar, they really underestimate girls,” Nyein Lay, who works for local magazine Frontier Myanmar, told VICE World News.
Though Myanmar’s press corps has its founding mothers, like legendary Voice of America correspondent Aye Aye Mar, who ran an underground network of stringers under previous eras of military rule, it is stereotypically thought of as a macho profession.
But during a move toward democracy over the past decade, women have begun to carve out more space in the male-dominated media—taking on dangerous assignments, winning prestigious awards, and leading newsrooms. Now, as the junta seeks to stamp out the remnants of a free society, it is up against a far more diverse press corps.
Nyein Lay at the scene of a protest in Yangon in March 2021. Photo: Thant Lwan Wai Chit
There are still many blind spots. Coverage of the ongoing civil disobedience movement against the new regime has not been spared the masculine lens. Young men behind plywood shields and makeshift barricades, dodging gas grenades and hurling them back at police, have largely been the face of the protests—whereas less attention is paid to women who painted posters, plotted rally points, booked busses, and carried out hundreds of other critical tasks in the nationwide uprising.
“There’s very little coverage of the background work, this invisible work that is happening, and a lot of it is being done by women,” said Aye Min Thant, 28, who worked as a human rights advocate before landing a job at Reuters in 2018 and then turning to freelancing. “People don’t necessarily have access to those networks, especially if they are male journalists who have never interacted with them.”
Aye Min Thant, who identifies as non-binary, said they noticed the gender gap at their very first press conference, which had only two non-male reporters out of dozens. “But I remember not being so mad about it when I went to the [women’s] bathroom and there was no line,” they laugh.
At one point, the ministry of information sent a notice to publications encouraging women on staff to dress “professionally,” meaning traditional skirts and blouses rather than jeans. Once, Aye Min Thant recalled, when one major publication was criticized for its male-centric coverage, its solution was to run more articles about beauty pageants and makeup.
“‘Women’s issues’ are seen as this separate other thing that exists in addition to this neutral human experience,” they said.
A media scrum in the early days of coup coverage in Myanmar in February, 2021. Photo: Zin Koko
With the junta tightening its grip on the press or anyone streaming with a camera, an estimated eight women working in media have been detained since the start of the coup, according to a monitoring group.
But when covering the front lines in recent protests—where men with loudspeakers order women to the rear ranks, or special “women’s areas”—some journalists faced misguided attempts at chivalry from male counterparts. At one demonstration, Nyein Lay recalled, “there were only boys, men, in the line, and when we heard tear gas bombs going off, one guy told me, ‘Go away! It’s not safe for you!’ And I asked why? A man has two legs and two arms, and we have that. Why can’t we stay in the line and do our job?”
“There were only boys, men, in the line, and when we heard tear gas bombs going off, one guy told me, ‘Go away! It’s not safe for you!’ And I asked why? A man has two legs and two arms, and we have that. Why can’t we stay in the line and do our job?”
Seeing one protester nested high up a tree, reporter and podcaster Win Zar Ni Aung shocked the crowd when she clambered up a nearby water tank and interviewed him. In her ten-year career, Zar Ni has been overlooked for high-profile assignments in places deemed too “risky,” which was pretty much anywhere outside main cities, she said. As manager of her own news team (she produces Doh Athan, a Swiss-funded human rights podcast) Zar Ni has been able to dispatch herself to rebel-held villages and border refugee camps.
“When I’m in the field, I don’t think I’m a ‘woman,’” she scoffed. “I can do everything a man can.”
Nyein Lay takes a photo at the scene of a protest in Yangon in March 2021. Photo: Thant Lwan Wai Chit
However, Zar Ni said being a woman in the media has helped her connect with sweatshop workers, victims of sexual violence, mothers in camps for internally displaced people, and other women who may not feel comfortable even speaking to a strange man, let alone discussing intimate details. More women in the industry would help their stories be told, she said.
Yet that won’t necessarily earn them more respect, Zar Ni added. The industry has other concerns too: “My opinion is not the same as other women,” she said. “I don’t want more women journalists—I want more journalists in Myanmar.”
Zar Ni believes, above all, simple economics are keeping women out of the field. Even before the coup, being a reporter in Myanmar was among the lowest-paid skilled professions, lucky to bring in a few hundred dollars a month.
Naw Betty Han, who works for Frontier Myanmar, said talent drain is also a problem.
“Most of the women, after they get experience for six or seven years, they change to another related field, for example, digital marketing and PR,” she said.
While she agrees that money is a major barrier, she worries about the gender gap. She was forced to move from broadcasting to print reporting when her former employer decided she shouldn’t be the only woman on a video team of all men. She longs for more women in the workspace and daydreams about one day working in an all-women newsroom. But why would a woman choose this profession when she could be earning double in a more “feminine” industry?
Nyein Lay, who began as a fine art photographer, made the leap when she heard a talk on photojournalism from an editor at The Myanmar Times. Now, she hopes women’s coverage of the historic events in Myanmar inspires others to follow the same career path.
“There are a lot of women photographers,” she said. “Maybe after the coup, they will tell their parents, ‘I want to be a journalist.’”