Women sidelined from Burma’s fledgling peace process

October 15 2012: Burma is going through a process of unprecedented change. Central to the long-term viability of this “new Burma,” are efforts to bring about national reconciliation and secure a lasting peace between the Burma military and the many non-state armed groups that have been fighting for self-determination for decades. Women could play a key role in this process, however so far their voices have been sidelined.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is one of only a handful of women in a position of authority in Burma. (© DfID)

Central to the long-term viability of this “new Burma,” however, are efforts to bring about national reconciliation and secure a lasting peace
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — As the dark-grey rain clouds gather and another late afternoon monsoon downpour threatens to unleash itself on the city below, Moon Nay Li is busy preparing the latest report from the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT). It details the plight of more than 90,000 people recently displaced by conflict in northern Burma and their urgent need for aid. From a small wooden house in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, Moon Nay Li and her colleagues strive to develop assistance and capacity building programmes, as well as document human rights abuses and inform the world and key stakeholders of violations taking place back in their homeland, in Kachin State, northern Burma.

Burma (also known as Myanmar) is going through a process of unprecedented change that has seen the election to parliament of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the repeal of oppressive censorship laws and many other reforms that are helping this once pariah state emerge from the shadows. Central to the long-term viability of this “new Burma,” however, are efforts to bring about national reconciliation and secure a lasting peace between the Burma military and the many non-state armed groups that have been fighting for self-determination for decades. The military-backed government has managed to secure tentative ceasefires with almost all armed rebel groups and many hope the current ceasefires will lead eventually into a genuine peacebuilding process.

The international community is projecting a rosy view of the reform process, but many civil society groups, and the rebel groups themselves, are not so optimistic.  The situation in the commercial capital of Rangoon is a million miles from the reality in the country’s isolated ethnic areas. As the KWAT report shows, large-scale fighting continues in Kachin State causing mass displacement, and Burmese Tatmadaw forces remain entrenched in ethnic areas, where reports of widespread human rights abuses and armed clashes continue. Many say the ethnic groups have yet to see any evidence that the military is open to genuine dialogue that will lead to peace.

“The fighting is getting more and more serious. Some IDPs are fleeing to Myityina and surrounding areas, but others cannot get out.  They are trapped in their villages, surrounded by Burmese troops and they have no access to food or supplies,” said Moon Nay Li.

“Also in northern Shan state, the offensive is ongoing and more government troops are being sent into the area. That is a big problem for us. The regime talks about ceasefires, but their actions and implementation are contradictory to that.”

There are also concerns that the tens of thousands of refugees, who have lived in camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border for decades, will be forcibly repatriated before they, or Burma, is ready. European Union funding for these camps has already been slashed.

Furthermore, many fear the recent lifting of sanctions will pave the way for an influx of foreign investment and large-scale loans from international financial institutions. Recent reports suggest the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank are set to offer loans of nearly USD $1 billion between them for development projects. There is also increasing concern that the destructive economic patterns seen elsewhere in the developing world, from Brazil to the Congo, will be repeated in Burma.

In addition, critics warn that a gold rush on Burma’s natural resources will further complicate efforts to establish a national peace process, rather than help it.  Local community voices are being ignored, say activists, to the detriment of what could be Burma’s greatest opportunity for achieving peace in over half a century.

In a recent briefing on the peace process, the Burma Partnership said: “For the people of Kachin State, who experienced 17 years of a fragile ceasefire that other ethnic groups are experiencing now, the lack of political dialogue is the main obstacle to a cessation in clashes. During the previous ceasefire period, Kachin State faced the kind of development projects being discussed for current ceasefire areas such as logging, mining and large dams. The consequences were huge: environmental damage, economic exploitation and the advent and exacerbation of social problems. Some Kachin leaders were co‐opted by the regime, lured by the promise of economic riches.”

“As the government continues to wage war against the KIO [Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), it is no surprise that they are holding out for political talks. They have experienced the kind of ceasefires that are being agreed to in other ethnic areas and they know that most likely these will not bring peace. They will only bring further human rights atrocities, economic exploitation and inequality.”

Where are the women?

There are other female MPs in the nascent parliament in Naypyidaw, but when it comes to the peace process, women are largely being sidelined.
But local peacebuilding initiatives do exist, and there are a growing number of organisations working in human rights documentation, community education and other areas that support the wider peacebuilding process. A key concern however is the lack of space for women to take part in the process.

Burma has one of the world’s most recognisable female Nobel Peace Prize winners, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. But the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, and daughter of the “father” of modern Burma, General Aung San, is one of only a handful of women in a position of authority in Burma. There are other female MPs in the nascent parliament in Naypyidaw, but when it comes to the peace process, women are largely being sidelined.

“This first step is that we have to have peace in our lives, and that then leads to peace in our communities and in the country. We are involved in peacebuilding projects where we provide training on peacebuilding in the community, especially for women,” said Moon Nay Li.

“But women also have to be involved in the top levels of the peace process, especially at the negotiating table, and especially now. There are no women in the negotiations for the ceasefire process in Kachin State.  The armed groups see no use for women in that process, and the Burmese government peace team should also include women in their team. Women want to and need to be involved, because often in conflict and post-conflict situations, women and children are the most affected. Women should be included in every step of the process.”

Burma’s military-backed government has signed ceasefires with many rebel groups in the past 24 months. Zipporah Sein, the Secretary General of the Karen National Union (KNU) is the only woman to have been involved at the highest levels of those negotiations; and she has campaigned for years on the importance of women being involved in every step of the peace process.

Before being elected leader of the Karen National Union, Zipporah was head of the Karen Women’s Association (KWO). KWO activities include providing training and support to women in Karen State and refugee camps, to promote women’s leadership and political participation, and to prevent violence against women.

The KNU signed an initial ceasefire with the government in January 2012, bringing hope for an end to one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. It is hard to gauge, but certainly, the KWO’s work on women’s political participation and Zipporah’s rise to political leadership have had considerable impacts on the KNU-led peace talks with the military-backed government. But there is always more to be done.

“The lack of women’s participation is part of the ongoing challenge to really turn this into a more productive process.”
“As the Karen Women Organisation we have called for more women in leadership roles in this peace process.  General Secretary Zipporah Sein is one woman who has stepped forward as a leader,” the KWO said. “We hope that all parties to the various peace talks will act to include women in their delegations. Women have a vital role to play in building peace and unity alongside men. We all must work toward peace, never letting that goal out of our sight.”

And here in Thailand, where exiles from Burma have been working tirelessly for human rights and democracy back in their home country for decades, women are often at the forefront of the movement, and not only in women’s organisations.

Khin Ohmar is the coordinator of Burma Partnership, an umbrella organisation supporting human rights and democratisation efforts in Burma. She was previously the coordinator and one of the founders of the Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Program at the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) which promotes the role of women in peacebuilding, conflict transformation and reconciliation among various ethnic and religious communities impacted by the civil war and repressive military rule.

“The lack of women’s participation is part of the ongoing challenge to really turn this into a more productive process,” says Khin Ohmar. “But having said that, I also think there is still a chance for the women of Burma to play their part, even though it is not easy at all, particularly for those women who have been on the front lines of advocacy and within the Burmese movement. There is an opportunity for us to raise our voices collectively and effectively, and make ourselves heard by policy makers.”

International efforts

Burma’s ethnic community and civil society organisations are concerned that, if not executed properly, these peace funds have the potential to undermine hopes for a more comprehensive nationwide peace process
The international community has begun planning and implementing a range of peace fund initiatives, including Norway’s Myanmar Peace Support Initiative and the World Bank’s Community Driven Development Program using its State and Peace-Building Fund. Norway and the World Bank have also joined the European Union, United Kingdom, the United Nations and Australia to form the Peace Donor Support Group with the objective of “catalysing peacebuilding and development.”

But Burma’s ethnic community and civil society organisations are concerned that, if not executed properly, these peace funds have the potential to undermine hopes for a more comprehensive nationwide peace process. Khin Ohmar echoes a number of local civil society groups who have expressed their disappointment in international efforts to support the peace process in Burma in recent months. They say it has been carried out with a lack of transparency and has been executed with a top-down approach that is siding with the government and fails to address a number of serious concerns, among them, the lack of women’s participation.

“Norway is a signatory to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which outlines the importance and necessity of women’s participation in all aspects of conflict resolution, and it is a shame that they do not appear to be following through with their obligations according to that resolution,” said Khin Ohmar.

And it isn’t only the Burmese government and the international community that are failing to place sufficient value on the importance of women’s involvement in the peace process. The political leaders of the rebel groups are also seemingly unconvinced of the benefits that women can bring to the negotiating table.

Women building peace

Women truly have so much to offer to the peace process and it’s in the interest of peace that their voices be heard
However, Cheery Zahau, External Affairs Director of the Institute of Chin Affairs and founder of the Women’s League of Chinland, defends the importance of women’s involvement in peacebuilding processes. “If you look at the example of the KNU, with Zipporah, you can see the advantages gained; Zipporah is a very grounded, grassroots person and is in constant communication with communities, which creates a lot of opportunity for communication. She knows the role of women, and those who can be of benefit and women can easily talk to her.”

“Organisations like the Women’s League of Burma and many others have been conducting training and capacity building for years, with political training and political empowerment for women, but those women who are being trained are not being recruited into these organisations. We are trying to convince the men, but the men keep saying ‘oh, we don’t have any skillful women.’ It’s just not true…. We are here, we are ready, and we have the skills; we just need the opportunities.

But hope is not yet lost. Many of Burma’s most prominent women activists and leaders are coming together to push for greater women’s participation in all areas of political life, including the peace process.”

Yet Khin Omar highlights that, “Sometimes, as women’s organisations, we confine ourselves, that is true. When it comes to women’s participation we can tend to think only of specific women’s organisation, but that is not it.

“It comes down to our own thinking, our own strategic and comprehensive understanding of the situation. They are not waiting for us, so maybe we will have to mobilise ourselves, and not just women’s organisations, and not only the women of Burma; we need to reach out to all the stakeholders and we need to be assertive. Because women truly have so much to offer to the peace process and it’s in the interest of peace that their voices be heard.”

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