‘Women in Leadership Positions Must Speak for All Women’

By Nyein Nyein 31 May 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—Naw K’nyaw Paw, the 2019 recipient of the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award, has urged the international community to reinstate support for Myanmar refugees as camps along the Thai border have faced cuts to food assistance, and to consider targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military, which she accuses of continued abuses against minority women.

Naw K’nyaw Paw, 33, is the general secretary of the Karen Women Organization, which supports gender equality and indigenous people’s rights along the Thailand-Myanmar border. A refugee since she was 11 years old, Naw K’nyaw Paw participated in the KWO movement as teenager and in 2017 became the general secretary of the group, which has more than 60,000 members. She and her colleagues have documented sexual and gender-based violence in conflict in Myanmar since 2004 and continue to speak out about violence against civilians by the military.

Because of her outspokenness and activism, she is regarded as a lifelong peace activist and was honored with the 13th International Women of Courage Award in March with nine other women around the world. The IWOC award recognizes women around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Naw K’nyaw Paw is the third recipient from Myanmar following the parliamentarian Daw Zin Mar Aung and gender equality advocate Daw May Sabe Phyu, who were honored in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

The United States Missions based in Thailand and Myanmar hosted a reception for the Karen woman at the U.S. Consulate General in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand on Thursday.

U.S. Consul General Jennifer Harhigh said the “Consulate General Chiang Mai is tremendously proud of the work of Naw K’nyaw Paw and her dedicated colleagues to defend the rights of vulnerable groups, especially women, affected by ongoing conflict. We admire her bravery in speaking out against all forms of violence and we are proud to partner with the KWO in support of a peaceful, prosperous future for all the people of this region, regardless of gender or ethnicity.”

Dr. Cynthia Maung, the founder of the Mae Tao Clinic often referred to as the “Mother Teresa of Myanmar”, said of Naw K’nyaw Paw, “She grew up as a war-displaced person and later as a refugee in a conflict-torn region and saw many unpleasant things, but she has been able to [organize other women to come together] and lead the way [in fighting], especially against injustice and insecurity. Thus such an award highlights that Myanmar still needs to improve its human rights conditions.”

Speaking at the reception, Naw K’nyaw Paw said she is “very honored” to receive the award, saying that it, along with the experiences of other IWOC awardees, gave her inspiration to continue her work.

Naw K’nyaw Paw also talked about her thoughts and perspectives on women’s empowerment and the peace process with The Irrawaddy at the reception.

Q: You have been a leader of the Karen women’s community since 2017. This IWOC award is a big achievement. What has led to this recognition?

Naw K’nyaw Paw: I think the work that we are doing is normal, everyday work, but we are glad that it has been recognized, for I think we are particularly, consistently speaking out against the Burma Army’s [Myanmar military’s] abuses of ethnic women and of the women in Burma, regardless of their background, including Rohingya women. So when the Myanmar military abuses the Rohingya women we also show our solidarity, because we know that the Myanmar military has been abusing other ethnic women—Karen, Kachin, Shan, Ta’ang—and now they are abusing the Rohingya women.

So we show our solidarity and support for all those women. We are not able to go and provide direct support, because of the work we are doing, as we don’t have enough resources, but [we want] to show that the same Myanmar military continues abuses of women in Burma and that this is not acceptable. We need to hold them accountable and we need to condemn these actions. I think it was because of this issue and also because of the work that we are doing to educate women and children and empower the women to get involved and speak out there. We were recognized for these works.

What are the biggest challenges for you as a leader of the Karen Women Organization?

NKP: I’d like to see our members be more active. The challenges we face [are that] we need to continue to provide capacity building to our leaders and members, because the KWO leadership is chosen through elections. In the refugee camps every two years there will be elections. In the Karen [KNU-controlled] areas, in the districts, every three years there is an election. So because of the pressure of food cuts and services cuts to the refugee camps, it is very hard for the KWO leaders to continue to work full time. They have a commitment there.

We are only able to give them a little support, and as for us, giving hope to the refugee people is very important. As long as people feel there is hope, they are able to work to improve the situation. Women will continue to work and support the community. So we need to provide our training, awareness raising, and also continue to seek support, international support, from the Karen community that has been resettled and also to the Thai community. We need to continue to provide training and services to the refugees, so they don’t lose hope. So that they can work for themselves and one day they will be able to return and make changes themselves as well.

So the KWO as an organization also helps people in the camps to get ready to return to their homes?

NKP: Of course. We provide leadership [skills] to the young women and capacity building to the organization and other services like education, early childhood education. So we standardize our services across refugee camps and Karen State. When women choose to return, they will return to a situation … not a new situation but one they are already familiar with. Also, if the KWO leaders return, they can work.

How prepared are they to return?

NKP: I think people are ready, but it is just that the situation is not right yet. Even for the people who remain inside Burma, their livelihood is so difficult. When people are hungry, it is very difficult for them to concentrate on training, to become a leader properly. They are afraid of the security [situation]; there are still military camps and landmines and you still haven’t seen a conducive situation. I think people are ready to return but … the situation is not yet right.

The NCA was signed three years ago, but you have said that the NCA process is dead. Over the past three years, do you see any changes in the region or is it still the same?

NKP: Politically, we are losing … since the ceasefire the Myanmar government expanded [its efforts to control territory]. They also brought in NGOs and some of the NGOs do direct implementation that supports the government’s polices but is not in line with our Karen structure, with the services we were providing before. We need more funding… more resources, to strengthen our capacity. But instead, our services are not recognized and so new services came in to wipe out our services, and we see disadvantages from this.

If there is recognition of our right to self-determination, you know, we have built the capacity of the people, both in the refugee camps and in Karen State to administer themselves, I mean to run services for themselves, to be leaders, to solve their own problems, to manage the community. We need this recognition. If there is recognition, I would say there would not be a problem for people to return or to stay wherever they are. We just need to encourage them to lead their own process and to live in their own way.

Politically, and regarding the current peace process, what do you think of the Karen National Union (KNU)’s approach?

NKP: First, three years after signing the NCA, the KNU now realizes that it cannot go on this way. I mean you cannot just proceed without including everyone. That’s why they realized that all ethnic armed organizations also need to have a stronger voice and come together. Without all the ethnic armed groups coming together, we won’t have the bargaining power and we won’t be able to negotiate with the Burmese government, especially the Myanmar military. Their mindset has not changed yet.

For the KNU, even though they see that the Myanmar military is taking advantages, it is very hard for them to stop there. What they can do under the NCA is just to bring up issues and try to hold talks. And even just to have formal talks, and to continue the dialogue, they have to try so hard. But I feel like they are not able to move forward, that is why they are looking for a way outside of the NCA. No one wants to admit that the NCA is not working anymore, but what they are doing is always outside the NCA. It is even following the NCA because they want to keep the NCA. Now the KNU wants all the ethnic groups to come together as a bloc, and also to go forward together. Of course, civil society supported that from the beginning, civil society wants the KNU to really work together with other ethnic groups and not leave out any group.

The current KNU leadership is the one that decided to participate in the peace process. How is their leadership right now? Do you think they need to change?

NKP: I think it is very … like you need to look beyond the NCA and look beyond the 2008 Constitution. I feel like the current peace process and the NCA continue inside the 2008 Constitution. If you are not able to go beyond the 2008 Constitution, if the leaders still believe that you have to act according to the NCA, I don’t think we can achieve a durable solution… We need leaders [who] look beyond the NCA and look beyond the 2008 Constitution and are able to go outside… and try to change or do something to change things.

As a woman leading others and also encouraging other women, what would be your one message to share with them?

NKP: The message would be that when you become a leader or you have a position, you should not forget that you are a representative of women… that you are not to manipulate others. You need to continue to speak out for women. Because what I fear is when women are given positions, there are so many pressures around them and sometimes they are not able to speak out for other women. So my message would be to really continue to speak out for women. Whether it’s from within the KNU or the government, or from the outside, we need to think about women’s needs and women’s voices and represent them.

We also talk a lot about gender equality and women’s participation in political decisions. What role does that play in the KNU?

NKP: Some leaders are open and more progressive than others. Some leaders encourage women. We can see that the KNU leadership includes some women and also that we are always demanding women’s participation.

Are you satisfied?

NKP: Not satisfied. [When they invite women] it is like a last-minute [invitation only]. It’s like ticking a box, and it’s not from the heart. So what we really need is to change people’s perspectives and really see the value of women’s participation and contribution and for it to really come from the heart when they invite women to participate.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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