Calls for More Female Voices in Burma’s Peace Process

By Yen Saning 18 December 2015

RANGOON — As Burma looks next month toward the start of a political dialogue aimed at ending decades of civil war, women’s rights activists this week reiterated calls for the inclusion of more female voices in the process.

In the lead-up to those talks, female participation in peace negotiations has been low and their needs have not been adequately addressed or have been left off the agenda completely, according to three women who have been involved.

Doi Bu, a sitting ethnic Kachin lawmaker, on Thursday shared how she had to take the initiative in order to participate in the peace process, requesting to be on the parliamentary Ethnic Affairs and Peace Committee, whose members are also part of the national-level Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UWPC).

As a member of the UWPC, she later requested to observe peace talks and in 2012 was able to sit in on the ceasefire signing between the government and the Pa-O National Organization (PNO), as well as observing peace talks with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in Laiza, Kachin State.

Raising the issue of greater women’s inclusion, however, resulted in her later being excluded from peace negotiations, she claimed, speaking at a discussion on women’s participation in the peace process, hosted by the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process and the Swedish Embassy.

“We still need to urge more inclusion of women. … We have found that there is more to be done to address the concerns of women. Rather than being excluded for having different views, [more female representation would] produce more fruitful discussion of different views,” Doi Bu said.

Nang Raw Zakhung, deputy director of the Nyein Foundation, recounted her experience having served as a technical advisor for the KIO and Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), roles that put her in rarified air as women in Burma go: Over the course of nine meetings between government negotiators and their NCCT counterparts, there were two women advisors from the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and two from the NCCT.

Advocates of greater women’s participation want to see that number much higher going forward and, according to Nang Raw Zakhung, pushed unsuccessfully to have 30 percent female representation included in the text of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, in reference to the coming political dialogue.

In the end, the text reads merely: “We shall include a reasonable number/ratio of women representatives in the political dialogue process.”

“[The ratio] of women participating in the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement negotiations] was frustrating. It’s more frustrating for someone who can’t participate in the discussion,” said Nang Raw Zakhung, an ethnic Kachin peace facilitator, as a member of Thursday’s panel.

A 30 percent figure is included in the text of the framework for political dialogue finalized this week, but that proportional benchmark is not mandatory and is rather a goal that participants should strive for.

Whatever percentage is ultimately arrived at, it is almost certain to be an improvement over women’s representation to date.

Among the leadership of the ethnic armed organizations, only one woman, Saw Mra Razar Lin, has been part of the peace talks since the creation of the NCCT, a grouping of 16 ethnic armed groups.

With the nationwide ceasefire’s signing on Oct. 15, a newly formed Union Political Dialogue Joint Committee to draft the framework for the talks in January fared little better in terms of female representation: Out of 48 members, only three women were included representing political parties and ethnic armed groups, while there were no women on the government side of the tripartite committee.

Less impress still, there are no women among the 26 members of the Union-level Joint Monitoring Committee, likewise a tripartite body formed last month.

Nang Raw Zakhung said there are still hopes that women can do better than this on the six state-level monitoring committees still to be set up.

Asked why women should be included in peace negotiations, and in what ways the process might benefit from their involvement, Mi Kun Chan Non of the Mon Women’s Network, recalled her experience as an observer at a meeting between the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the MPC. It was there that a female representative from the KIO initiated a fruitful discussion after the formal meeting, focusing on the situation of children in conflict-wracked Kachin State, said Mi Kun Chan Non, the third panelist for Thursday’s discussion.

Citing this as an example, she said women had different perspectives and priorities compared with men, which could prove helpful in discussions about conflict and peace.

Nang Raw Zakhung echoed the sentiment, saying women’s views and their greater propensity toward empathy might benefit the difficult negotiations to come in what is expected to be a years-long, grueling political dialogue.

“Our country’s leaders should know these differences. We are not saying women are better, but we have different skills and for the state, it should make use of women’s skills effectively.”

Nang Raw Zakhung added that women were also the main victims of armed conflict, and often suffered the brunt of the consequences in the aftermath of war.

“As we are those who suffer the consequences of it, we are also those who would like to think more about peace. That’s why women’s strengths, views and approval should be sought.”