Written by Mollie Pepper.

Building Peace in Myanmar

Myanmar is in the midst of a complicated peace process with ethnic minority groups that have been in conflict with the military for decades. The inclusion of women in the process has been minimal, despite clearly established guidelines for their involvement as set out by UNSCR 1325 and the existence of powerful women’s networks and civil society organisations, in particular ethnic women’s organisations, throughout the country.

Women’s participation in the formal peace process has been limited primarily to roles on the social committee, with little to no representation on the economic, land and environment, and security committees

Myanmar as a country is markedly diverse; the Republic of the Union of Myanmar’s government maintains that there are eight major ethnic groups that are divided into 135 distinct subgroups. Many of the ethnic minority groups have struggled for autonomy and recognition since the decline of the colonial period. These struggles for recognition have been a significant part of the country’s nearly 70 year-long civil conflict, which has included armed conflict, enforced conscription, and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military.

The government of Myanmar initiated ceasefire negotiations with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) throughout the country in 2011, after decades of armed conflict. In 2015, eight EAOs signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Though called the “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA), the NCA has been criticised for failing to be, in fact, “nationwide” and inclusive by refusing to recognise or engage in dialogue with several EAOs. Violent conflict has increased since the signing, especially with Myanmar Army offensives against nonsignatory EAOs. In January 2016, the first gathering of the Twenty First Century Panglong Conference was held, meant to be an occasion for a peace dialogue, it instead highlighted the ways that many stakeholders are being excluded from the peace process. Most notably EAOs, who are not in talks with the government, and Civil Society Organisations. The second meeting of the Twenty-first Century Panglong Conference was held in May 2017.

Women in Myanmar’s Peace Process: Excluded and Under-Represented

There are two references to women’s participation in the official frameworks for the peace dialogue in Myanmar. First, the text of the National Ceasefire Agreement itself reads, “We shall include a reasonable number of women representatives in the political dialogue process.” The second is more specific and can be found in the Framework for Political Dialogue: “Will make efforts to include 30% of women’s participation in all political dialogues.” These advances were hailed as signs of progress at the Workshop on UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 hosted by the Myanmar national Human Rights Commission and UN Women.

However, as practitioners have noted, moving from acknowledgement to commitment, and from commitment to action can be difficult. This has certainly shown to be the case in Myanmar’s process where few women have had the opportunity to participate in peace dialogues. This was especially clear at the Union Peace Conference held in Naypyitaw in January 2016. Though there was a stated commitment to a 30 percent quota for women’s participation, only seven percent of participants were women. Among those, the greatest percentages of female participants were among the EAOs, ethnic leaders, and academics, with little to no participation on the part of the government and military. At the second peace conference, women’s participation increased slightly, but remained far below the 30 percent quota. Part of the problem of implementation is that there is no National Action Plan for women’s inclusion, leaving the intention without structural support or mechanisms for implementation.

It is important to note that women’s participation in the formal peace process has been limited primarily to roles on the social committee, with little to no representation on the economic, land and environment, and security committees. Further, women representatives are not equally distributed across ethnic groups. The Karen National Union by far includes the most women in its delegation, while other groups include few or no women. From the Myanmar military in particular, no women are included in the peace process.

Beyond the Official Talks: Women’s Organising for Peace

The lack of women included in the peace process seems in some respects as though it should be relatively easy to correct in Myanmar with the presence of large and well-established women’s networks and organisations, the most powerful among these the ethnic women’s organisations. These organisations include groups like the Karen Women’s Organisation, Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, and Shan Women’s Action Network, among others. These are further organised under the umbrella organisation Women’s League of Burma. Individually and as a collection of groups, ethnic women’s organisations deliver essential social services, advocate for women and women’s rights, and promote peace in their communities and with ethnic armed organisations. Despite this readily available source for finding women qualified to participate, few women from any group are included in peace negotiations.

Lack of formal representation is not the end of the problem. Women’s civil society organising, especially through ethnic women’s organisations, has been essential in peace advocacy and in working with ethnic armed groups to advance gender in the peace process. As a part of these efforts, the Women’s League of Burma has authored a shadow constitution calling for the mainstreaming of concerns including violence against women and women’s political representation as well as a Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) shadow report.

It is important to note that many ethnic women’s organisations were founded as auxiliary groups to EAOs and, though their role has changed, they retain strong relationships with those EAOs. This provides an opportunity to influence the representatives that are included in the peace talks, even if these women and organisations are not able to participate themselves. Though not sufficient, strong organising efforts have placed women around, if not at, the peace table.

Mollie Pepper is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University where her dissertation examines the role of ethnic women’s organisations in Burma’s peace process. Image credit: CC by dany13/Flickr.


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