By Bhavya Kumar:
While the participation of women in politics worldwide has seen an increase, a very small number of them actually stand out as the most influential driving forces in their nations’ political dynamics. I find myself fascinated by those who happen to make a difference in a country where it’s hardest to move forward, and also those who, inspite of being at a position to make a difference, tend to falter, but continue to vitalize their own struggles. One needs to look no further than at our neighbours in the east, at Myanmar, Philippines, and South Korea, to find strong women leaders who have and continue to make an impact. While they might seem like an odd bunch of nations to pick, but if you look deep enough, their histories and stories form stages of progress of a nation, and the many struggles it incurs.
A recent image of our PM Narendra Modi meeting and shaking hands with the charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow LSR-ian, graced the front pages of many a dailies. Indo-Myanmar relations apart, the picture made me reflect on the country and where it stands currently. Myanmar as a nation seems to be excited… expectant even. A South-East Asian country with much potential but little material strength, impoverished people and internal strife of multiple sorts, Myanmar’s tryst with being a democracy began way back in 1948. As the political struggle continued, it was the National League for Democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 1988 made quite a difference. The dissolution of the military leadership left Myanmar with another kind of problem. It seems gaining independence was only the beginning of a new struggle. The political reforms were and are slow to materialize due to internal political power play of Myanmar. Suu Kyi, now a member of the lower chamber of Burmese Parliament, cannot move forward. It remains to be seen whether or not she will be permitted to contest the 2015 Parliamentary elections, from which she is barred at present, and the many other politico-legal hindrances that continue to hinder her aspirations. Suu Kyi, 69, is one of world’s most prominent political prisoner, with her house arrest lasting for about 21 years; her struggle for bringing about democracy in the country has received tremendous international support throughout, acknowledged and awarded by many countries, she stands as a hope for many of her fellow countrymen who would like to see her rise to power. What blocks her presidential aspiration is a certain provision in the country’s constitution, concerning marriage to non-Burmese nationals, who are therefore denied the seat of President and Vice President. There has been much debate if the clause should be changed or not. A parliamentary committee voted overwhelmingly against the recommendation, for instance. Democracy has come to the nation, but it still is under the subliminal influence of the very recent past of the military junta. The government still seems to be composed of many who are her political rivals. The reforms are slow to materialize. Suu Kyi’s escalation within the structure will be the maturity of her struggle, and shall, as much expected, start off a new era for Myanmar.
Maintaining stability that has been achieved in the domain of polity and governance is another thing. Going back in time, and a little further to the east, we find an example of this in the Philippines. Corazon Aquino led the People Power Revolution in 1986 in Philippines against the existent authoritarian rule which had been there for about 20 years. After coming to power, she reformed the country’s polity and economy. The 1987 constitution was put into force, which functioned as form of institutional check on the powers of the President, for instance. It focussed greatly on civil liberties and human rights. She’s credited with the restoration of democracy in Philippines. Her economic programs also aimed at reforming the economic policies of the country, for example, tackling the huge amount of debt incurred under her predecessor. She introduced land reforms which sought the redistribution of agricultural lands held by landowners to tenant farmers. Though some of her plans and reforms provoked controversies and unrest among certain sections of the society, her efforts nevertheless were based on simply the requirements of Philippines at that time. In a country where conditions were particularly pathetic, her struggle to pull it together, cutting through multiple barriers to pull Philippines together as a nation was lauded by Filipinos themselves and international observers abroad. Her capacity to mobilize massive plans and able to get these plans implemented brings her out as not only a strong leader but also a capable administrator.
Going just a bit off track, a little to the north is South Korea. It’s a nation best known for its K-drama and its sour feuds with North Korea. Park Geun-hye, the President of Republic of Korea is the strong female force leading this nation. Her policies within South Korea deal with economic revival, and she is known for her pro-market orientation. She also started out a campaign to eradicate “Four Evils of the Society” which deal with sexual and domestic violence as well, since South Korea is a country where gender discrimination works under the surface but is still very much alive and functioning. A capable administrator, and known for keeping up her commitments with the country, she has handled the South Korean foreign policy extremely well. South Korea finds itself in a neighbourhood which recently became quite dynamic considering the Japanese increasing aggression and eagerness to balance out China’s power in the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, despite being very close ally of the US in the region, South Korea under her leadership has also found support from China. Looking at her “Korean Unification Plan”, the first thing that comes to my mind is the entirely different perspective of the other Korea, but surprisingly, the plan is very well structured, which has started out with the “Trust-Building” Process, which intends to collaborate with North Korea on small-scale schemes, which shall build up to further stages of unification. In my view, while the current activities of North Korea are staunchly opposed by the South Koreans, there still is an effort to start a process of amelioration to tackle the chances of getting embroiled into conflicts in the future. Apart from that, South Korea and Russia too have held a fairly productive bilateral conference, indicating the country’s active endeavour to seek support in alleviating tensions from the Korean peninsula with the help of various other nations.
Now, I admit not all the endeavours of these leaders have been received well. In the case of Suu Kyi, her silence on the Rohingya crisis brought her much criticism while she was expected to take an action. Aquino, during her term, saw a terrible unleashing of natural calamities that disrupted life in Philippines, against which, she was helpless. Some of her reforms also brought harsh criticisms. As for Park, her influence on Asia-Pacific politics isn’t exactly independent and one can point out flaws with the increasing Korean dependence on the US, and at the same time, making an effort to ameliorate with the North. But, in that case, no leader can be expected to be the epitome of the ideal, especially when they are holding power that creates ripples within the society and outside the society where the exercise power. These women have been extremely successful in the fields they dedicated themselves to, and that too, in difficult situations respectively. Political liberty and stability, economic disparities and differences and ultimately, maintaining good relations with other members of the international community are some of the major priorities of a nation, and women in these countries have demonstrated to the world brilliantly how prowess, influence and capacity, doesn’t always pertain to social distinctions made between men and women.