As the Panglong Conference begins, where are the women?
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.