By Akanksha Khullar*
For years, women in Myanmar have been powerful advocates for comprehensive peace and good governance, calling for reconciliation and democratic transition; demanding legislations that protect women’s rights; and leading civil society initiatives for reform. Yet, as Myanmar chugs forward with its ongoing peace process with the numerous Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) operating in the country, women’s meaningful inclusion in this mammoth exercise is yet to become substantial and comprehensive.
For instance, women-led and focused organisations have been conducting mass advocacy campaigns to secure women’s representation and involvement in the process by means of a 30 per cent reservation for women at different levels of political dialogue and peace negotiations. This demand not only arises from the need for affirmative action to facilitate women’s participation in the process, but is also in line with the country’s obligation as a signatory to the Convention to End Discrimination against Women. Nonetheless, these demands were neither included in the initial 2011 peace negotiations nor in the landmark peace accord—Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)—signed between Naypyidaw and eight EAOs in October 2015. In fact, the text of NCA simply calls for the inclusion of a “reasonable number of women representatives in the political dialogue process.”
The effect of this ambiguity is palpable. In January 2016, only 2 women served on the 48-member Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC)—the leadership body of the Union Peace Conference (UPC); and women comprised merely 7 per cent of the 700 participants at the UPC when it first convened. However, by the end of January 2016 UPC, pressure from civil society organizations (CSOs) to remedy this severe under-representation of women resulted in the decision to “strive to achieve 30 percent women’s participation in political dialogue.”
The subsequent years have witnessed an increase in women’s participation in the UPC, but the minimum target threshold of 30 per cent has not yet been achieved. To illustrate, women comprised 13 per cent of the 663 participants at the August 2016 UPC; 17 per cent of the 910 participants at the May 2017 UPC; and 22 per cent of the 1,112 attendees at the July 2018 UPC. The uneven growth in numbers suggests that structural barriers and other challenges still remain, and need to be addressed for a more robust involvement of women to become a reality. In fact, the 2018 UPC was marked by controversy and disagreement as the military objected to retaining the 30 per cent representation proposal, citing the failure of the previous UPCs to achieve the necessary numbers.
Currently, there are only 4 women among 78 participants within Myanmar’s NCA mechanisms; women comprise only 9 per cent of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JCM) members; and have no representation at the union level. This demonstrates a lack of a gender equitable approach in Myanmar’s national peace process, where women’s participation is extremely limited not only at the highest levels but also at the operational levels such as in ceasefire monitoring and substantive peace negotiations.
Need for More Women Peace-Builders
Fundamentally, Myanmar’s peace process can be viewed as having two broad components: a) formal dialogues with EAOs who have signed the NCA; and b) engagement with those who have not yet signed the NCA. Although formal negotiations with the signatory EAOs are ongoing, it is the Tatmadaw’s (military) predominantly militarised approach towards the non-signatory EAOs interspersed with informal discussions and occasional ceasefires that impedes progress. Moreover, existing dialogue mechanisms have been unable to address inter-ethnic conflicts between the non-signatory EAOs. Considering that neither the JCM nor the government is in a position to take constructive action where non-signatory EAOs are involved, informal and community level peace-building processes might be better approaches to address these internal tensions.
In both situations, third party mediation by women could potentially fill the critical gaps as women in Myanmar are at the forefront of civil society advocacy. Numerous women’s CSOs that emerged from areas affected by the conflict are already helping with back-channel discussions and advising stakeholders in the peace process. As such, they are already contributing towards the agenda of nationwide peace. However, their efforts have been consistently marginalised with restricted formal participation in peace talks. With adequate recognition and increased representation, they can make the much needed impact towards reducing, preventing and eventually ending the ongoing armed conflict.
As far as inter-EAO conflicts are concerned, women from different ethnic groups can collaborate to build trust to overcome ethnic and other differences, and pursue programs through well-established CSOs and women’s networks to achieve the mutual goals of peace, reconciliation and equitability. In addition to women’s participation at the grassroots level, a greater participation of women is needed at the top-most decision-making levels for two fundamental reasons:
Firstly, given how the overall agenda of peace negotiations is derived from the high-level bodies, increased and equitable representation of women in these bodies is essential for ensuring that the differential impact of conflict and peace agreements on women, and respect for women’s rights feature comprehensively in Myanmar’s overall peace settlement frameworks and mechanisms.
Secondly, gender equality and equity are among the essential factors that determine the quality and sustainability of peace agreements. Women’s inclusion at higher decision-making levels could serve as an example and even facilitate trickling down of gender equitable practices in the overall structures, agendas and different rungs of the peace bureaucracy. Comprehensive participation of women will also contribute towards the greater legitimacy and inclusivity of the peace process.
In the past, to overcome their limited representation during peace talks, women in Myanmar explored alternative ways to participate, such as by means of informal peace-building activities like tea-break advocacy, where female peace campaigners lobbied male delegates while serving them tea during breaks. Such efforts, however, must now be translated into meaningful representation of women in the formal peace-building mechanisms. Strengthening women’s participation at both macro and micro levels is necessary for Myanmar’s peace process to result in effective, sustainable and equitable peace.
*Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher at the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at IPCS.