by Yin YinThatun, Class XVI
As I reflect on International Women’s Day, and the ongoing peace process in Myanmar, I see how much more work needs to be done to better implement the laws that have already been established to facilitate women’s participation. The lack of commitment to ensuring and strengthening the inclusion of women in Myanmar’s peace process by successive governments has been a major disappointment over the years.
As part of my Applied Field Experience (AFE) in the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to intern with the Secretariat of the Rakhine Advisory Board. It is an oversight body established to monitor and advise the implementation of the Annan Commission’s 88 Recommendations on Rakhine State (a province in the western part of Myanmar) where the inter-communal conflict has drawn international attention. Through this experience, I was able to observe a complex negotiation process that occurred behind closed doors in Myanmar. As a current master’s student learning the field of Peace and Conflict, I absorbed all aspects ranging from the kinds of diplomacy used, how issues were prioritised and addressed, including with what kinds of negotiation styles. I even learned more about the conflict itself. The more I learned, the more questions I had, but one stood out above them all:
Where are the women in all of the discussions, facilitation and negotiation stages?
At the time of my internship, the Board members consisted of five national and five international experts, of which only one member was a woman (see picture above). In 1997 Myanmar ratified and has since been a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – a treaty equating to the international bill of rights for women. I saw first-hand that the changes that were promised, to have a more gender equal peace process, had not yet materialised. I do not find fault with the assignment of the Board members based on what each individual brings to the table. At the same time, I also realise that this is the status quo. A 2012 study on 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 indicated that only 2% of chief mediators, 4% of witnesses and signatories and 9% of negotiators were women (O’Riley, Súilleabháin and Paffenholz, 2015). Is the lack of women participants because there are a limited number of women with required skills, or is it because the process did not search sufficiently?
It is no longer viable to say that there is not sufficient capacity among Myanmar women, for them to be included in any stage of the peace process. Qualified women can be found in many spheres including among those having informal support roles in the peace processes. But why are they not at the forefront? There are women, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Women’s organisations, and civil society working towards more gender equality in Myanmar – these are the experts from which the Union Peace Conference (also known as the 21st Century Panglong) could have them participate in the conference and receive advise with regards to gender, the conflict, and the peace process.
Outside the cosmopolitan city of Yangon and away from the national stage, women in ethnic minority areas have taken on community leadership roles where they are required to deal with armed actors from the Myanmar military and the ethnic armed groups (EAGs). An example of this can be seen in a group of Ta’ang women in northern Shan state who remained to guard their villages from the fight between the EAGs and Tatmadaw (Myanmar military)when the men were absent from the villages for various reasons.
2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)
The weakness of gender inclusivity and female participation has been weak throughout Myanmar’s peace process. Taking the landmark the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as an example, the language used in the NCA regarding gender inclusivity and participation is weak and from qualitative and quantitative analysis of the implementation. It is clear, that gender equality in the peace process remains a major challenge.
During this part of the NCA peace process, there were women who fought hard to have their voices heard. Yet the results were, as some observers noted, that of a “gentlemen’s agreement” (Gender Concerns International). That is, the Union Peace Conference recognised the importance of women’s participation in peace talks but claims it was difficult to include them in practice (ibis).
Currently, in Myanmar’s NCA mechanisms, women make up 4 out of 78 participants – joining the downward trend of insufficient participation of women in peace processes (UN Women, 2018). In the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), the mechanism created to monitor ceasefire violations, women account for only 9% of members, with no female representation at the Union (Federal) level. The blatant discrimination of women is obvious from such statistics. Women make up over half of Myanmar’s population. Without women from various spheres of society represented at the peace talks, who can voice the concerns of women and how can their priorities be included? Women remain overlooked and unaccounted for in what is a fundamentally male-centric peace process. If more than half of the population is not represented at the table, how can any peace agreement be durable and effective?
Research has shown that women’s participation in peace processes contributes to the achievement and longevity of peace agreements. Myanmar’s current trend is moving away from this.
When the Framework for Political Dialogue was agreed upon a few months after the NCA was signed, it was decided that 30% of those participating in the peace process should be women. The reality was that only 13% of the participants in the first Union Peace Conference held in 2016 were women, and 17% in the second conference in 2017; failing to meet the mandated standards for women’s inclusion each time. During the third conference in mid-2018, military representatives actually objected to the proposal of having 30% female participants.
What the numbers above do not reveal is the quality of participation and the influence the women are able to exercise during the negotiations. Many times women take on supporting roles with very few having leadership status. The obvious exception is the leader of the ruling party and State Counsellor of Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Although she has encouraged women’s active participation saying “Participation does not mean just sitting at the conference,” her “position at the helm of government and her seat at the peace table has, in reality, done little for the promotion of gender equality in Myanmar” (Weaver, 2018). This highlights how the presence of women does not simply result in gender equality, but that women from a variety of social, political, economic, and ethnic backgrounds need to be actively involved in the peace process and that their voices, perspectives, and participation must be recognized as valuable if gender equality is to be improved.
Bringing the Focus Back to Women’s Participation
Earlier this year the ruling party, National League for Democracy (NLD) pushed for a constitutional change. The attempt to amend the 2008 Constitution, drafted by the then-ruling military government, has focused on political aspects such as the reservation of 25% of legislative seats for the military and division of authority between the union (federal) and state level governments.
These are no doubt critical, but very little attention, if any, is given to the question of women’s participation. For example, Article 352 states that “nothing…shall prevent the appointment of men to the positions that are suitable for men only”. This is one of the systematic barriers that women face while space is actively preserved for men. This is not consistent with what the same section of the document states that there shall be no discrimination on the “basis of race, birth, religion or sex”.
So, a push for a constitutional change needs to be done holistically and not sideline issues that limit women’s participation in the peace as well as a wider political process. Women’s organisations and civil society representatives have been working hard to raise awareness of women’s rights in communities, and their knowledge of and responsibilities in Myanmar’s peace process. Female village leaders have been negotiating with soldiers and armed groups informally on a daily basis. The foundations for women’s participation in peace processes have been laid through these bottom-up actions. The top-down approach needs to do its work to meet up in the middle in order for the country to have a more sustainable and successful peace process.
Aside from pushing for Constitutional change, other actions could make strong commitments to meaningful implementation of gender equality, and other instruments must be put to use to bring in women’s participation. Currently, in Myanmar, there is the National Strategic Plan for Advancement of Women (2013-2022), which has a segment on women’s participation. There is also the Joint Communique that was recently signed in December 2018 to better implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The mechanisms and actors are all in place. Let’s prioritise, strengthen and implement them. We are ready to move forward.
Aung, S. (2017). Female Participation in Peace Process Improving, But More to be Done. The Irrawaddy. [online] Available at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/female-participation-peace-process-improving-done.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2019].
Council on Foreign Relations. (2019). Tracing the Role of Women in Global Peacemaking. [online] Available at: https://www.cfr.org/interactive/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/explore-the-data [Accessed 5 Mar. 2019].
Council on Foreign Relations. (2019). Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar | Global Conflict Tracker. [online] Available at: https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/rohingya-crisis-myanmar [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].
LwinOo, H. (2016). Women and the 21st Century Panglong Conference. In: Panglong Conference. [online] Yangon. Available at: http://www.genderconcerns.org/pdfs/Women%20and%20the%2021st%20Century%20Panglong%20Conference%202.pdf [Accessed 5 Mar. 2019].
Macgregor, F. and Aung, T. (2016). Women guardians protect deserted villages in northern Shan State. Myanmar Times. [online] Available at: https://www.mmtimes.com/in-depth/19852-women-guardians-protect-deserted-villages-in-northern-shan-state.html [Accessed 5 Mar. 2019].
Mon, Y. (2018).Controversy, progress at the third Panglong conference. Frontier Myanmar. [online] Available at: https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/controversy-progress-at-the-third-panglong-conference [Accessed 4 Mar. 2019].
Nyein, N. (2016). 21st Century Panglong Conference Kicks Off in Naypyidaw. The Irrawaddy. [online] Available at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/21st-century-panglong-conference-kicks-off-in-naypyidaw.html [Accessed 10 Mar. 2019].
O’Riley, M., Súilleabháin, A. and Paffenholz, T. (2015). Women’s Participation and a Better Understanding of the Political. [online] Wps.unwomen.org. Available at: http://wps.unwomen.org/pdf/CH03.pdf [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019]
Parameswaran, P. (2019). What’s Behind the New Constitution Change Push in Myanmar?. The Diplomat. [online] Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2019/01/whats-in-the-new-constitution-change-push-in-myanmar/ [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].
Republic of the Union of Myanmar President’s Office (2018). President receives Prof.Dr.SurakiartSathirathai. [image] Available at: http://www.president-office.gov.mm/en/?q=briefing-room/news/2018/07/18/id-8895 [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].
United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (2018). Joint Communique signed between the United Nations and the Government of Myanmar to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence in Myanmar. [online] Available at: https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/press-release/joint-communique-signed-between-the-united-nations-and-the-government-of-myanmar-to-prevent-and-respond-to-conflict-related-sexual-violence-in-myanmar/ [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].
UN Women. (2018). Facts and figures: Peace and security. [online] Available at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/peace-and-security/facts-and-figures#_Meaningful_participation [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].
Warren, R., Applebaum, A., Fuhrman, H. and Mawby, B. (2018). Women’s Peacebuilding Strategies Amidst Conflict: Lessons from Myanmar and Ukraine. [online] Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, p.20. Available at: https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Womens-Peacebuilding-Strategies-Amidst-Conflict-1.pdf [Accessed 4 Mar. 2019].
Weaver, M. (2018). Women’s participation in Myanmar’s Peace Process: Towards a New Narrative?. Utrecht University.
For further reading:
Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (2017). Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine.Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. [online] Available at: http://www.rakhinecommission.org/app/uploads/2017/08/FinalReport_Eng.pdf
Burmalibrary.org. (2008). The Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. [online] Available at: http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs5/Myanmar_Constitution-2008-en.pdf
Muehlenbeck, A. and Federer, J. (2016). Women’s Inclusion in Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Inclusive Security.
Paffenholz, T., Ross, N., Dixon, S., Schluchter, A. and True, J. (2016). Making Women Count – Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations. Geneva: Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative. [online] Available at: https://www.jointpeacefund.org/sites/jointpeacefund.org/files/documents/ipti-un-women-report-making-women-count-60-pages.pdf
Silbert, C. and D’Cunha, J. (2016). Landmarks in Myanmar’s Post-2011 Peace Process The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Myanmar: A Gender Equality and Women’s Rights Analysis. [online] Myanmar: UN Women. Available at: http://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2017/02/mn-nca.pdf?la=en&vs=3331