Ethnic Issues

Saw Mra Razar Lin: A Woman Warrior-Turned-Peacemaker

By Nang Seng Nom 7 July 2015

RANGOON — Once the sole female peace negotiator between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups, Saw Mra Razar Lin has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with powerful men for decades.

Before she joined peace discussions as a representative of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Saw Mra Razar Lin was also a soldier. At 55, she is still lively and strong, carrying with her the experience of being a rebel, an exile, a mother.

A few decades ago, Saw Mra Razar Lin was a schoolteacher in western Burma’s Arakan State, and few people knew who she was. That changed after the 1988 popular uprising in Burma, when pro-democratic activity swept across the nation, infecting her with a passion for politics.

Like many other activists at that time, she soon went underground. Saw Mra Razar Lin left her Kyaukphyu home and headed for the border with Bangladesh, where she joined up with Arakan’s underground revolutionary element.

“When the pro-democracy uprising happened in 1988, I rallied people in Sittwe [the Arakan State capital] and preached about democracy. After that I rose to prominence,” she recalled during a recent interview with The Irrawaddy.

“I decided to work together with the Arakan revolutionaries whose views I shared.”

At first she became a part of the National United Front of Arakan, a revolutionary group that shortly thereafter disbanded due to difficulties in the region’s rough and mountainous terrain. With too little food and not enough guns, Saw Mra Razar Lin decided to leave the group and head for Thailand, where she could help them acquire more firearms.

Life as a woman soldier was difficult, she said. At almost all times, she was the only woman around. This made her time extremely hard to bear when she was ill, because no one was around to care for her. At one point she came down with a terrible case of malaria, and simply suffered through the sickness on her own strength.

Saw Mra Razar Lin said she spent a full two years with her brothers-in-arms without seeing a single fellow female.

“I wouldn’t dream of going through it again, life was very hard,” she said of her time underground and in the jungles. Unable to even call her family, who still lived in Burma, she remembered the days as incredibly lonely and harsh. As Saw Mra Razar Lin said, “there was no phone and no food in the revolution.”

While Saw Mra Razar Lin may have had enough of the soldiering life, she held onto the principles of the Arakan rebellion. In 2012, she realized she could play a different kind of role in Burma’s civil war: that of a peacemaker.

As a representative of the ALP at the negotiating table with President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, Saw Mra Razar Lin became the first woman to enter into peace negotiations. She was later joined by Naw Zipporah Sein, vice-chairperson of the Karen National Union. The two of them are among only a handful of women who have been involved in the talks, despite the tremendous toll that conflict has taken on the lives of Burma’s ethnic women.

Women ought to be more involved in resolving conflict, she argued, because, “women suffer from fighting.” Saw Mra Razar Lin explained that in many of Burma’s conflicts, while the men go the frontlines, women are left behind to deal with starvation, displacement and, in many cases, sexual abuse. If for no other reason, she said, women should be more integral to peacemaking solely because “most women want to stop the wars.”

After living the life an exile for more than two decades, mostly in Bangladesh, Saw Mra Razar Lin was invited to return to Burma in late 2012. She made her comeback decorated with international awards for her activism and dedication to bringing about democracy in Burma. When the ethnic negotiating bloc, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) was formed in Kachin State the following year, she was appointed as one of the chief Arakanese representatives.

“It’s important that a large number of women take part in the peace talks,” she told The Irrawaddy, remarking that while many women have tried to get involved in the process, they are often prevented from participating because they lack combat or political experience. Burdened by household roles and maternal responsibilities, women in Burma find it difficult to match the education and experience of their male peers, she explained.

That inequality ripples through every tier of power in Burma, she said, lamenting the country’s lack of female leadership—not just in the peace talks, but in local and national politics. Part of the problem, she said, was that omen in Burma lack political knowledge and experience, which can only be improved by women who take initiative and push themselves through the ranks against all obstacles.

As for her herself, Saw Mra Razar Lin—a wife and mother of five with a home in Bangladesh—she admitted that she pays more attention to politics that to traditional “family duties.” Every woman faces unique obstacles, she said, and will ultimately have to make her own decisions about what they want and how to achieve it.

“Life is tough for everyone,” she said. “It is important that women do not feel downhearted.”