As the Pan­g­long Con­fer­ence be­gins, where are the women?

The Myanmar Times - - News - FIONA MACGRE­GOR f.macgre­gor@mm­times.com

THE much-her­alded Union Peace Con­fer­ence is fi­nally here and del­e­gates from across Myan­mar and the world are gather­ing in Nay Pyi Taw for an event that re­calls the ne­go­ti­a­tions of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s beloved fa­ther with eth­nic mi­nor­ity lead­ers al­most seven decades ago.

But while to­day’s 21st-cen­tury Pan­g­long Con­fer­ence will be recorded on mo­bile phones and in­stantly up­loaded, at­ti­tudes to­ward gen­der equal­ity have not ad­vanced so rapidly, and only a tiny num­ber of those del­e­gates in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions are women.

Peace ex­perts and rights cam­paign­ers have re­peat­edly warned of the risks of ex­clud­ing women from the talks – warn­ings which have been ig­nored by the govern­ment, the Myan­mar mil­i­tary and the eth­nic armed groups.

The spe­cific experiences, rights and needs of women af­fected by con­flict are clearly be­ing dis­re­garded in the peace process. But also cru­cially at this time of sen­si­tive deal-bro­ker­ing, vi­tal skills and ex­pe­ri­ence are be­ing over­looked be­cause of gen­der stereo­typ­ing.

The male lead­ers of the Myan­mar mil­i­tary and eth­nic armed or­gan­i­sa­tions have for decades failed to reach a long-last­ing, na­tion­wide peace agree­ment in this coun­try, which has the tragic claim of be­ing home to one of the world’s long­est-run­ning civil wars. Even as lead­ers ar­rived in the cap­i­tal yes­ter­day, fresh bat­tles were re­port­edly tak­ing place in Kachin and north­ern Shan states.

Yet once again, these armed men are claim­ing do­min­ion over the path to peace, and the govern­ment has failed to cham­pion the rights of women and other civic rep­re­sen­ta­tives to have a sig­nif­i­cant role in the pro­ceed­ings.

The as­sump­tion that be­ing ca­pa­ble of per­pe­trat­ing vi­o­lence some­how pro­vides some­one with the skills to ne­go­ti­ate an end to vi­o­lence is a non se­quitur. Yet such an at­ti­tude is preva­lent.

Cov­er­age of women in con­flict tends to fo­cus on them as vic­tims – and not with­out good rea­son. But there is a danger of over­look­ing the more pow­er­ful roles women also play in con­flict – in­clud­ing con­duct­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with armed ac­tors.

The is­sue of women’s ex­clu­sion from the peace ne­go­ti­a­tions was re­cently high­lighted by UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on hu­man rights in Myan­mar Yanghee Lee. Writ­ing ahead of this week’s con­fer­ence, she pointed to stud­ies show­ing that the in­volve­ment of women in peace pro­cesses in­creases the like­li­hood of an en­dur­ing agree­ment.

“Myan­mar in gen­eral has not per­formed well so far on this score, with women com­pris­ing only 16 per­cent of the senior del­e­ga­tion ne­go­ti­at­ing the NCA [the so-called na­tion­wide cease­fire agree­ment of Oc­to­ber 2015, which ex­cluded key armed groups],” she wrote, high­light­ing the govern­ment’s fail­ure to in­tro­duce a 30pc quota.

But women’s in­clu­sion in the peace process is not just a mat­ter of ticking a few boxes to meet in­ter­na­tion­ally pre­scribed equal­ity quo­tas, which is of­ten how it is per­ceived.

A Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW) re­port this month ti­tled “‘A Gen­tle­man’s Agree­ment’: Women’s Par­tic­i­pa­tion in Burma’s Peace Ne­go­ti­a­tions and Po­lit­i­cal Tran­si­tion,” noted, “Be­yond women hold­ing few, if any, senior po­si­tions in the par­ties in­volved in these ne­go­ti­a­tions, many women’s rights groups re­port be­ing treated with dis­dain or as ‘spoil­ers’ for press­ing for the in­clu­sion of women’s rights.”

The ab­sur­dity in aim­ing for eth­nic equal­ity and na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion while ig­nor­ing gen­der equal­ity and women’s needs and voices should be ev­i­dent to all in­volved. But ap­par­ently it is not.

The HRW re­port cited male mem­bers of armed groups say­ing the called­for quota of 30pc of par­tic­i­pants in all ne­go­ti­a­tions to be fe­male should be a ceil­ing – that is, the max­i­mum num­ber of women rather than the min­i­mum.

In real­ity, 30pc re­mains a far­away dream for equal­ity cam­paign­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the Al­liance for Gen­der In­clu­sion in the Peace Process (AGIPP), just 7pc of del­e­gates at the last Union Peace Con­fer­ence, held in Jan­uary, were women.

“In the­ory, we can do it [in­crease women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the peace talks], but in prac­tice it’s dif­fi­cult. So we made a ‘gen­tle­man’s agree­ment’ to wait un­til later,” one eth­nic armed or­gan­i­sa­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive told HRW.

Ap­par­ently they found it eas­ier to agree to sit at a ta­ble with other men – even those who had been their deadly en­e­mies on the front­lines – than to sit at a ta­ble with women from civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions who are cam­paign­ing for peace. Such at­ti­tudes un­der­score the chal­lenges women in Myan­mar face in try­ing to make their voices heard in pub­lic fo­rums.

Yet away from the na­tional stage, women in eth­nic mi­nor­ity ar­eas not only serve as sol­diers, but also, in civil­ian vil­lages, have reg­u­larly taken on com­mu­nity lead­er­ship roles that have re­quired them to deal with armed ac­tors from the Myan­mar mil­i­tary and the eth­nic armed groups.

Ex­am­ples reported in this pa­per in­clude a group of Ta’ang women in north­ern Shan State who re­mained to guard their vil­lage af­ter the rest of the com­mu­nity fled to IDP camps amid fears that the men would be de­tained by the Tat­madaw. Fe­male and male com­mu­nity lead­ers said that while the women were fright­ened, they also felt women would be bet­ter able to ne­go­ti­ate with the sol­diers and avoid vi­o­lence.

The group’s leader, Daw O Khe, who spoke strongly of her de­ter­mi­na­tion to stand up to any ma­raud­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel, told The Myan­mar Times in April, “I’d like to work for peace ne­go­ti­a­tions and to present [my ideas] to the au­thor­i­ties. I will dare to speak out if I get the chance.”

Like­wise, tes­ti­monies from women in south­east Myan­mar, pub­lished ear­lier this month by the Karen Hu­man Rights Group, high­lighted how women were of­ten given lead­er­ship roles that re­quired them to deal with armed lead­ers who came to their vil­lage look­ing for sup­plies and other sup­port.

Women vil­lage lead­ers there spoke of fears and abuses, but also reported how they de­vel­oped pos­i­tive, re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ships with dif­fer­ent armed ac­tors.

Mean­while, fe­male ac­tivists and politi­cians such as Shan Na­tion­al­i­ties League for Democ­racy state hlut­taw MP Nang San San Aye (Thibaw/Hsi­paw 1) have proven them­selves more than ca­pa­ble of front­line ne­go­ti­a­tions to as­sist civil­ians af­fected by armed con­flict.

What is hold­ing women back from the peace process is not women’s in­abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate with armed lead­ers, or their “nat­u­ral” re­serve, or their in­ex­pe­ri­ence with con­flict; it is their ex­clu­sion from the ta­ble by those armed power-hold­ers who seek to en­sure their own in­ter­ests in any peace deal.

Any agree­ment which clearly pri­ori­tises the in­ter­ests of those with guns over the in­ter­ests of those with­out guns risks ex­ac­er­bat­ing con­flict rather than end­ing it.

Women’s groups have been among the most vo­cal ad­vo­cates for a peace deal that de­mands an end to mil­i­tary im­punity for crimes, par­tic­u­larly those of sex­ual vi­o­lence.

Many equal­ity cam­paign­ers are also com­mit­ted com­mu­nity ac­tivists. While the lead­ers of eth­nic armed or­gan­i­sa­tions are aware of their re­liance on sup­port from within their own com­mu­ni­ties, many have also gained con­sid­er­able wealth from re­source ex­ploita­tion or drug pro­duc­tion in ar­eas un­der their con­trol.

It is easy to see why nei­ther side is par­tic­u­larly keen to have a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of women at the ta­ble.

Zaw Khin Lay, a mem­ber of the AGIPP steer­ing com­mit­tee, said the al­liance had been in­vited to send 10 rep­re­sen­ta­tives as ob­servers, and had drawn up a brief pa­per they hoped to present, but would prob­a­bly only be able to “hand it out” to key del­e­gates from the side­lines.

In real­ity, to­day’s high-pro­file con­fer­ence open­ing will be more a mat­ter of pub­lic show than gritty ne­go­ti­a­tion. “I’m not hope­ful for any con­crete or ac­count­able so­lu­tion from [this open­ing] event,” said Zaw Khin Lay.

It is widely recog­nised that it is prin­ci­pally a sym­bolic oc­ca­sion. The real horse-trad­ing over peace will take place in the days, months and, likely, years to fol­low.

It is clear there is a de­sire for a gen­uine peace agree­ment from many quar­ters. But the lack of women del­e­gates does not bode well for equal­ity, for peace or for democ­racy.

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