When Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections in Myanmar in 2015 – the first openly contested vote in the country after decades of oppression – I was on the street outside her party’s headquarters.
I’ve never been anywhere like it. The hope and expectation in the air was like a physical presence.
Thousands had taken to the streets, clad in the red of her party, bandanas knotted around their heads, to sing, chant, hug each other and cry as they watched the votes being counted.
It started to rain – big, soak-you-to-the-skin droplets – but the crowd barely noticed. "Rain?" one man beamed at me, gesturing at the sky. "No problem!"
Myanmar has been beset by many problems since that joyous night. And Aung San Suu Kyi – that symbol of hope, human rights and democracy, the country’s most famous woman, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate – has, from an international standpoint at least, become one of them.
That’s because, since the woman affectionately known as 'The Lady' took over as de facto leader of her country, her government has overseen what has been branded a genocide against one group of its citizens, the Rohingya.
Around 700,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh in the face of an appalling campaign of violence led by the Burmese military, with reports of summary executions, rapes, and babies thrown into fires.
For a human rights icon to stand by – and even defend – this violence is unthinkable, even considering the justifications put forward that she is operating in line with public opinion in her country, or trying to keep the military on side.
Almost a million Rohingya people now live in terrible conditions in what has become the largest refugee camp in the world, on the border with Bangladesh. Aid can’t reach the people left behind in Myanmar, and reporters have been jailed for exposing the atrocities there.
It all feels a long way from that electrifying victory night, when the crowd chanted Suu Kyi’s name and the hope was so palpable you could almost touch it.
But it made me think. Because while the crowd roared at every glimpse of her on the giant video screen in front of them that night, The Lady herself didn’t appear, apparently too exhausted (and perhaps wary) to address the crowds before the official results were confirmed. The electricity – and yes, the hope – was all from the crowd.
I decided then to embark upon a project which became a book, The Other Ladies of Myanmar, in which I meet 12 women and hear their amazing, hopeful, brave, frustrating and sad stories about life in a changing country.
I began by thinking these women would appear in the book in addition to Aung San Suu Kyi; the backing singers to her soloist, if you like. While I lived in Myanmar, the veneration of Suu Kyi was such that it was hard to imagine they could be anything else.
In the last two years, things have changed. While many in Myanmar do still have hope in their leader, I find it hard to have any hope in Suu Kyi. But I have hope in these women, and other people like them across Myanmar who are working to build the future of their country in the face of many obstacles.
Here are extracts from two of their stories.
Ah Moon – the popstar
Burmese pop star Ah Moon is reading out her social media messages as we sit in the Yangon traffic.
"Bitch, slut, get out of the country," she reads aloud, scrolling down. "And it’s just because I’m wearing what I want."
Her jaw juts defiantly, and we pull away from the traffic in her car.
"I’m in a situation where I push boundaries every day," she says. "It’s not because I’m not respectful to people, it’s because I want to show people from Myanmar that just because you are from this country, you don’t need to box yourself in."
Ah Moon, 25, is one of Myanmar’s leading pop stars. Think of her as the Beyoncé of Destiny’s Child, or the Harry Styles of One Direction – her career started in a talent show, then a girl band (one of Myanmar’s first), and she’s emerged from that as her own woman, with a string of hits under her belt, a film, and more than a million followers on Facebook.
But you can’t really think of her like Harry or Beyoncé, because she’s far more revolutionary than that.
Under the military junta, making music in Myanmar was effectively banned, and things have been very slow to change since then. While there were some brave acts out there who tried to produce original sounds, in the main, pop music was made up of Burmese copies of Western hits called copy tracks, for many years. Even then, censorship was everywhere.
When a military-backed civilian government took over from the generals in 2011, things improved, although not immediately. Ah Moon’s former group – the Me N Ma Girls – remember celebrating because they were allowed to wear coloured wigs in one of their videos.
In 2012, they released "Mingalar Par" – a word used as a greeting in Myanmar, particularly to foreigners – with some pretty bold lyrics. Singing partly in Burmese and partly in English, wearing a mix of traditional clothes and Western outfits, their mission was clear: to emerge from behind the closed doors of their country.
"I’m a girl from the land of Myanmar, try to sing it loud so my voice reach far. Myanmar girls, just like any other girl in the world," they sang. It’s been a mission statement for Ah Moon ever since.
Ketu Mala – the feminist Buddhist nun
In Myanmar, one of the most everyday sights is a line of Buddhist monks, barefoot, shaven headed, clad in scarlet robes. Early in the morning, they queue up outside shops, houses and restaurants to receive alms (food and support from lay people).
But you don’t just see monks. There are nuns too, also with bare feet and shaven heads. They normally wear pink robes with an orange sash.
However, according to the type of Buddhism practised in Myanmar, they are not really nuns at all. According to Theravada Buddhism, women cannot be ordained as nuns, because their order is basically extinct. They are, at best, known as 'renunciants', lay women who have taken vows to live according to Buddha’s teachings – and there are 60,000 of them in Myanmar (despite their official non-existence).
But these nuns can’t preach, become senior members of the Buddhist community, or even enter parts of pagodas. They also don’t get anywhere near the respect afforded to monks in this deeply religious country, and often even struggle for food donations. It’s hardly the image of equality, tolerance and harmony that Buddhism often has in the West.
Ketu Mala is a Burmese nun, and she’s not happy about this inequality. She’s not just any nun, either. She founded the incredibly successful Dhamma School Foundation, which brings Buddhist teachings into education in Myanmar. She recently met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and leads lectures all over Asia. And she’s a feminist – a feminist nun.
We meet in one of her friend’s houses near Yangon airport.
"Let’s face it," she says, speaking partly in English and partly Burmese. "Myanmar has and has had a male-dominated, patriarchal society, which also means the majority of religion is also dominated by men. The role of women in the religious sector can sometimes even be remarked upon as non-existent. It’s that small. Why? Because the patriarchy is deep-rooted in Myanmar, this is the main point."