YANGON – A young doctor in Myanmar wanted to chase her dream of becoming a model, but her medical license has been revoked because of her “sexy” images on social media, sparking controversy in the conservative Buddhist-majority country.
The 29-year-old physician, Nang Mwe San, told EFE during an interview at the home she shares with her parents in Yangon – the country’s biggest city – that she would fight to get her license back.
“I’m really sad and upset about the decision because I still want to practice medicine in the future,” she said. “I worked very hard and spent a lot of my time to earn this degree.”
After completing her studies, Nang Mwe San practiced her profession for four years. Two years ago, however, she decided to launch a career as a model and began to pose for fashion magazines, appear in television ads and post pictures on Facebook and Instagram that were deemed too provocative by the more puritanical elements of Burmese society.
The young doctor explained her biggest influence was American socialite and reality television star Kimberly Kardashian West, who, she said, inspired her to feel confident about herself.
“Kim Kardashian is my idol,” she said. “I don’t like the other members of the Kardashian family; I only admire Kim because she’s the first initiator.”
Nang Mwe San said she wanted to be “the first medical doctor who is also a sexy model.”
This combination did not sit well with Myanmar’s Medical Council, which sent her a letter on June 3 notifying her that her license was being revoked as her photographs and videos “contravened Burmese tradition.”
The council had previously warned her in January that she was not allowed to pursue both activities – practicing medicine and being a model – at the same time.
Nang Mwe San posted the council’s letter on her Facebook page – which boasts over half a million followers – and nearly 6,000 users commented on the issue, with some showing support for the doctor-model and others defending the institution’s decision to bar her from practicing medicine.
“The Hippocratic Oath does not mention how to dress or that you’re not allowed to wear a bikini,” she said in her interview with EFE. “The council’s decision doesn’t really recognize me as a model and artist; they even said my behavior was problematic.”
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a well-known Burmese television host and activist, told EFE that Nang Mwe San’s case highlighted some of the contradictions ingrained in Myanmar’s patriarchal society.
“She is challenging all of Burmese society by doing two different things: being a doctor and a sexy model,” she said. “This has created a space for all of us to debate about how to build a progressive society in a democratic culture.”
Myanmar began its transition to democracy eight years ago following almost five decades of military dictatorship during which the Southeast Asian nation remained closed off to the rest of the world and citizens had very limited access to information from the outside.
In this new transition phase, the use of mobile phones and the spread of internet connectivity – until then a privilege enjoyed by the very few elite – has seen dizzying growth. There are now almost 20 million Facebook users in a country of 53 million inhabitants, something that has brought about huge social transformation for a people who had been almost completely isolated for half a century.
“Burmese society remains uninformed about the basic principles and practices of democracy and human rights,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi said. “It simply sees them as imported values from Western countries.”
The activist said she believed the Medical Council would not have made the same decision if a male doctor had pursued a modeling career, though she acknowledged that this would have been an unlikely occurrence.
“There’s no market for sexy male models,” she said, adding that “women are used as sexual products.”
Nang Mwe San herself has experienced the objectification of her body under the male gaze and has suffered online harassment from men who only see her in a sexual light.
“Once a model becomes famous on social media, she starts to receive sexual offers from rich sponsors who want her to become their mistress,” she said. “I’ve experienced these types of offers but have refused all of them. My family isn’t poor and I don’t want to be tied to someone I don’t like.”
“If you only look at the surface, I may seem like a lustful girl, but I’m not like that in reality,” she added. “I’m a simple girl.”