Are women the key to peace in Myanmar's 69-year war?

Women in Myanmar are not only the victims of war -- they can be smart negotiators and understand the conflict just as well as men. Why have their voices been excluded from the peace process for so long?

Mairi Mackay Nang Phyu Phyu Lin
16 September 2016


Women search for names on a voter's registration list at a polling station in the village of Dala, Myanmar in 2015. Credit: Amanda Mustard/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Myanmar recently took a step towards peace in a brutal conflict that has lasted almost 70 years.

Earlier this month, the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi led a peace summit between Myanmar’s government and ethnic rebels, aimed at kick-starting national reconciliation and ending some of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts.

The 21st Century Panglong Conference, which ran in Naypyitaw from 31 August to 4 September, did not bring a resolution to insurgencies. But it gave representatives from dozens of ethnic armed groups a chance to discuss their issues and ambitions and there are plans for another meeting in six months.

But after decades of conflict in the border states, it will not be easy.

Women are not only the victims of war. Women can be negotiators. Women can be peace makers

Intense fighting, oppression and human rights abuses have deeply ingrained mistrust of the powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw -- especially among ethnic minorities. The frontier areas remain some of the poorest in Myanmar, despite bountiful natural resources.

One group who feel their voices are under-heard in the complex business of peace building in Myanmar are women. 

The government, military and ethnic groups have chosen few women to participate in largely failed peace talks over the past few years. Ten out of 195 senior delegates participating in the the eight failed peace efforts since 2012 were women, according to data from Human Rights Watch.

Female representation at Suu Kyi’s recent summit was better at 13%, according to the Myanmar-based Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP), but they say more needs to be done.

openDemocracy spoke to the Chair of AGIPP, Nang Phyu Phyu Lin about Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, cultural barriers to women’s participation and why their voice is key in working towards peace. 

Mairi Mackay: Why is it so important to have women’s voices heard in the peace building process in Myanmar?

Nang Phyu Phyu Lin: Women are not only the victims of war. Women can be negotiators. Women can be peace makers. Women can talk with women from other sides peacefully. Women can bring peace. Women can care about other as they care for their family. Women can contribute in political dialogue and nation building.

Women are half of the world. If you do not allow women to participate in the peace process, you will miss half of the world’s voices. The dialogue will not be complete [if you are not] hearing the half of the world’s voice.

MM: Is it fair to say that traditionally Myanmar women have been quite independent and involved in business and in social leadership positions?

NPPL: The government always mentions that Myanmar women enjoy equal rights compared to neighboring countries [like]  China and India. Women from Myanmar got role at home for instant the political leaders have to listen their wives decision. Women’s are ministers of home. Women can run business if they want but women themselves prefer to stay at home and serve for family. That’s their perception. In reality, women have triple burden due to gender norms and can’t overcome the glass ceiling due to a [patriarchical system].

Men mock women leaders and male subordinates try to test their capacity

MM: The Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process website says that the “status of women in Myanmar is evolving against a backdrop of stark exclusion from public life”.

NPPL: A 2013 report by CARE, Oxfam and Action Aid on women and leadership in Myanmar shows that although women have leadership roles in the  business and social sectors, women leaders still face lots of challenges -- especially gender discrimination in the work place. Men mock women leaders and male subordinates try to test their capacity, for example. A lack of women mentors and leadership is also an issue.


Aung San Suu Kyi sits with members of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) following a meeting of armed ethnic groups in Naypyitaw, Myanmar in July 2016. Credit: Aung Shine Oo/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

MM: Now that Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s de facto leader and is pushing the peace process forward -- has that created an opportunity for women?

NPPL: We hope the lady will support the quota system (a temporary special measure) for women’s participation in peace process. This is included in National Ceasefire Agreement and Framework for Political Dialogue. There will be opportunity for women once the policy (the quota system) to promote women’s participation is developed and implemented.

MM: You have advocated for quotas but – but is it enough for women to simply have a place at the table to get their voices heard?

NPPL: Just 30% women’s participation is not enough. We need to ensure safety and security for women who participate in the peace process. We need to conduct assessment and analysis of women’s participation and provide recommendations to adopt better options.

Men think women do not know the tactics of war -- that they are the ones who fight and know the strategy

MM: Once in public life how great are the cultural barriers faced by women? How does this affect their ability to be productive in peace building?

NPPL: Myanmar women, including ethnic women, have to work hard if they want to prove they are capable. The research shows that if men want to participate in politics no-one questions his [political ability]. But if a woman wants to participate in politics, people -- including women -- question that women and demand proof [of her knowledge and ability].

At the same time, family members and relatives expect women to be dutiful wife and mother by doing all the household work. In the workplace, policy and procedures are not working-mother friendly, for example, no childcare room at the office, no budget to bring a breast-feeding child while their mother [is going to work]. The society also puts pressure on women to stay at home and take care of children instead of participating in politics and the peace process.

MM: How does that play into ongoing attempts at peace building?

NPPL: Men say women should participate only in political dialogue and [shouldn’t be at the table] in the early stages of peace negotiation. Men think women do not know the tactics of war -- that they are the ones who fight and know the strategy. That’s why they initiate peace talks by themselves [among the fighters].

But women’s groups never give up. Women have demanded to participate in the peace process since the beginning. Women know how to negotiate, what to negotiate and when to negotiate. They play the negotiator role at the family level and the society level -- so why not at the national level?

Finally, Ethnic Armed Groups (EAOs) have started paying attention to women’s groups. This is the effort of [groups like the] Women’s League of Burma (WLB), other women’s networks and, of course, the efforts of AGIPP. The other alliance partners such as the Gender Equality Network (GEN), Women’s Organization Network (WON) and state-based organization networks, for example in Kachin, Shan and Mon states, also do advocacy work with the government and members of parliament for women’s participation in the peace process. But there’s still a long way to go.

Women...play the negotiator role at the family level and the society level -- so why not at the national level?

MM: Burma has many ethnic groups -- the majority Burman and tens of minority ethnic groups including Karen, Rakhine, Shan -- how differently is women’s role perceived across the different groups?

NPPL: Women’s role among the ethnic groups is not [that] different. It might depend on how gender-sensitive and open-minded each family is. Sometimes religious practices and men-made religious norms reinforce women’s secondary role, e.g. the concept and belief that women are lower then men and should not climb to holy places. Karen have fewer gender stereotyping practices compared with Rakhine and Shan. Rakhine and Shan rarely allow women’s leadership.


Rebel fighters of Shan State Army North (SSA-N) in Wan Hai, northeastern Shan State, Myanmar in February 2016. Credit: Esther Htusan/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

MM: Myanmar’s Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw, has had a policy of undermining armed ethnic groups by targeting their support base, undermining their security and creating poverty and hunger. How much has this affected ethnic minority women?

NPPL: Gender discrimination is a major barrier for ethnic women. Ethnic men believe that they have to protect their ethnic women. The Tatmadaw knows well about [ethnic men’s] thinking [around] women’s protection. So, they use rape as weapon of war to destroy ethnic identity and challenge the dignity of [ethnic minority] men. Gender-based violence became a root cause of civil war. But increasing impunity also became a contributing factor in the ongoing civil war.

MM: Dealing with the ethnic issue is very important in peace building. What’s the significance of women’s role in resolving this thorny and complex issue?

NPPL: In Myanmar, the ethnic issue is very important. Ethnic [minorities] value their ethnicity, literacy, culture, costume, art and history. [They] want justice and fair treatment from the state, which they have never received.

Women’s groups demand of their ethnic group leaders -- if you value justice and fairness -- please treat your women the same. Ethnic women [have made an] alliance together as women’s network, so we can share our feelings among ourselves. We can join hand-to-hand and we can build peace [among ourselves]. That is very crucial for the peace process but the male leaders still don’t know the value of women yet.

MM: What are your hopes for the future of women's role in peace building in Myanmar? 

NPPL: As we are trying our best, I do hope people will recognize women’s contribution and value women’s participation. But we need to set a proper strategy. Some women will work with advocacy, some will work on awareness raising and some women will need to work on public campaigns and use activist approach to [get] women’s voices [heard].

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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