Women have been underrepresented in formal roles throughout the ongoing peace process and comprised only 13 percent of the delegates in August 2016 talks and 17 percent of delegates in the latest round of talks in May 2017.
Women’s groups have been viewed as honest brokers, have built public support for rounds of talks, and have—at great risk—led local campaigns to address underlying causes of the conflict. A newly launched civil society peace forum could provide women an avenue to increase their influence in the process.
Since Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, various armed ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy from the government have fought the world’s longest-running civil war. Tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by fighting, with particularly high rates in Rakhine (due to ongoing sectarian violence between the Buddhist community and the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority), Shan, and Kachin states. Women and girls have suffered a range of abuses by both the military and armed groups, including sexual violence, abductions, forced labor, and trafficking.
A patchwork of bilateral state-level cease-fires throughout the 1990s did little to end the violence, but, in an important step forward in the ongoing peace process, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was signed in October 2015 between the government and eight of the sixteen armed ethnic groups involved in the four-year negotiation. Elections in November 2015 resulted in a decisive victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, ushering in a new era of civilian government after nearly fifty years of military rule. The NLD-led government has made the peace process a priority and in August 2016 hosted a peace conference with broad representation, including seventeen of Myanmar’s twenty largest ethnic groups. Since then, increased military and rebel attacks have eroded trust, resulted in massive displacement and abuses against civilians, and contributed to delays in follow-on negotiations (initial plans were to host talks every six months to reach agreement on specific issues). The political and security situation remains fragile.
Burmese women have fought in armed groups, campaigned for peace, faced imprisonment for opposition politics, and survived conflict-related sexual violence and abuse over the course of Myanmar’s conflict. Yet they remain underrepresented in formal roles in the ongoing peace process: at the August 2016 conference, women represented only 13 percent of the 700 delegates. This was an improvement over the January 2016 talks, when only 8 percent of the 647 participants were women, but still falls well short of the 30 percent target set in the January 2016 talks. In leadership roles, women represent only 4 percent of the forty-eight-member committee leading the peace process, and only four of the sixty-seven official negotiators (6 percent) to the previous Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement were women. Notably, one woman—Naw Zipporah Sein—served from June 2015 as the lead negotiator of the cease-fire negotiation team of the armed ethnic groups. No women served on the government’s lead negotiation team. Despite their low participation rate in official forums, Burmese women have led mass action campaigns to address the root causes of the conflict, built public support for the process, served as honest brokers in negotiations, and documented human rights violations to promote greater rule of law. And though women’s rights groups have been sidelined in past conferences, a civil society peace forum established in February 2017 could facilitate increased participation in the negotiation process going forward. Women's participation has reportedly increased to 17 percent of delegates participating in talks held in February and May 2017.
Burmese women have fought in armed groups, campaigned for peace, faced imprisonment for opposition politics, and survived conflict-related sexual violence and abuse over the course of Myanmar’s conflict.
Here are five ways Burmese women have made a difference.
Act as honest brokers. Women served as experts in the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement; they were selected because they were seen as “impartial, trusted by all groups, and had deep knowledge of the technicalities of ceasefire accords and implementation practices.”
Lobby informally. Women have acted as informal observers and back-channel communicators, serving as intermediaries with civil society groups. Women have also been involved in “tea-break advocacy”; when they were unable to secure a formal place at the table, women lobbied male delegates while serving them tea during recesses. During these informal lobbying talks, women have reportedly brought up critical issues affecting ethnic minorities, disarmament and reintegration, and displacement.
Document human rights violations. To promote rule of law as part of Myanmar’s democratic transition, women’s groups have documented human rights violations perpetrated by the military and armed ethnic groups, and have sought to publicize their findings to increase awareness and accountability.
Lead mass action campaigns. At the grassroots level, women are leading ongoing campaigns to address issues at the heart of the conflict, including land rights and equitable sharing of natural resources, as well as issues critical to society’s recovery, such as education and health care. They do so at enormous risk, and many have been detained and arrested because of their leadership.
Speak across divides. Representatives of ethnic-minority women’s organizations have been able to form alliances to speak directly with representatives of armed ethnic groups. May Sabe Phyu, a prominent peace activist, says that women are able to broker trust across divides based on common goals: “We want to participate in the peace processes not because we want to get power or position . . . We want our next generation to live in a conflict-free society.”
“Peace in Burma needs the efforts of women. It needs our strength and our power to care and our point of view. Peace-making that is based only on short term rewards and economic development will bring only more conflict and violence.” — Naw Zipporah Sein, vice president of the Karen National Union
- Direct representation at the negotiation table
- Observer status
- Mass action