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As some 700 delegates took their places for the post-opening ceremony photograph at the National League for Democracy government’s second round of peace talks in the capital on Wednesday, it was immediately apparent that in Burma, peacemaking remains a man’s game.
This was State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s 21st Century Panglong Conference — the manifestation of her campaign pledge to get to work on bringing an end to Burma’s multiple civil conflicts. But although women account for more than half the country’s population, the only criterion in which they are over-represented, when it comes to matters of war and peace, is among those displaced by hostilities between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups.
In the lead-up to the first round of talks in August, the government agreed in principle to a quota, called for by gender-equality advocates, for 30 percent female representation. The reality fell far short of that goal.
According to the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process, a mere 7 percent of government delegates were women; ethnic groups fared better, but still only at 20 percent. That first NLD-led summit yielded largely symbolic gains — speeches delivered at the event were compiled and a second round of high-level talks was tentatively scheduled for the end of February, a date later pushed back to 24 May.
Since the initial conference’s conclusion, violence has continued unabated in the country’s restive border regions, particularly northern Arakan State, and Kachin and Shan states.
And still, again, it was largely a sea of men that assembled for the second round of talks beginning on 24 May. Weary women’s activists say they aren’t surprised, but warn that Suu Kyi’s dream of “sustainable peace” cannot be truly realised when women’s voices are muted.
“We are half the population, so when you ignore us, you ignore half of the issue. It is not inclusive,” said Mi Kun Chan Non, chair of the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP).
At time of publication, DVB was unable to independently confirm the precise number of official female participants at the May 2017 iteration of the 21st Century Panglong Conference. As for the Tatmadaw’s attempts at gender equality, AGIPP said they sent 10 women out of 150 delegates in total, representing just under 7 percent.
The warning signs that women would remain sidelined under the NLD government emerged early in the 2015 general election campaign. The party, comprised of a great many former political prisoners and democracy activists, fielded few female candidates. Activists were riled anew when Suu Kyi addressed a conference of female business leaders on International Women’s Day in March: The country’s most powerful woman did call on attendees to contribute to the peace process, but listed raising “peace-loving” children as a suggested means of engagement, clarifying her call for equal participation in the country’s peace process.
“I want 50 percent participation. However, what I mean is that sitting in the meetings is not the only way to participate. True peace does not originate from these meetings. It emerges from within our hearts,” she said.
In her days as a democracy icon, the de facto country leader denounced the military’s use of rape as a weapon of war against ethnic women. These days, the contrast is stark — accusations of soldiers raping Rohingya women in the country’s west have been dismissed out of hand, by the Office of the State Counsellor, as “fake rape.”
Observers at the Panglong summit said the issue of gender-based violence was off the agenda. According to Mi Kun Chan Non, “They often say about that, ‘The past should be the past,’ and, ‘Let’s not bring those issues into the present.’ Men would like us to forgive these things.”
Suu Kyi’s perceived refusal to bring other women into the halls of power with her has disappointed — and riled — activists. Worse, some say, her inaction reinforces societal prejudices that obstruct women from entering the political sphere.
“Comments like that are certainly not helpful. The result of these stereotypical norms is the almost complete exclusion of women from formal positions in power in Myanmar today [although women are certainly organizing outside of formal politics, luckily],” Jenny Hedström, a Ph.D. candidate at Monash University and gender adviser at Fortify Rights, told DVB via email.
“What would be helpful would be for ASSK [Aung San Suu Kyi] and the government to implement comprehensive legislation [e.g. PoVAW] aimed at identifying and addressing the inequality and discrimination women in Myanmar face,” she added, referring to the National Law on Protection and Prevention of Violence Against Women, which is yet to be tabled for discussion in the legislature.
Many women that attended the second-round Panglong talks were limited in their participatory remit, with many designated as “special invitees” or “observers.” Despite the seemingly illustrious title, special invitees were unable to engage in discussions and were instead restricted to lobbying official delegates on the sidelines of the peace summit.
Soe Soe Nge, a policy member at the Women’s League of Burma, told DVB she fears negotiators on all sides see women as a “special interest group” not central to the wider process. She highlighted the efficacy of including women in negotiations.
“There are very, very few women here. But even the women in the meeting rooms are rarely decision-makers. If they want sustainable peace, they need to give more space to women so they can raise their voices. In the conflict, all key stakeholders are [perceived to be] the men fighting each other, but they do not understand what is happening to women and children on the ground,” she said.
The long-time women’s rights advocate also criticised disorganisation at the Panglong meet-up, saying she and other “observers” only received their invitations at the last minute. For many ethnic groups, this made travel and childcare arrangements a logistical nightmare.
Hedström likened the late issuance of invitations to traditional barriers women face throughout the peace struggle.
“The late invitations for women groups to attend mirror the physical obstruction that’s been used all along to keep women out,” she said.
One special invitee, who requested that DVB withhold her name, said she believes the military and government see women’s issues as separate from the peace process. An economics expert, this Panglong attendee said she believed that she would have “between five and 10 minutes” to present her opinions to delegates.
What women on the ground are saying has long been backed up in academia. A recent study found that the best indicator of a state’s peacefulness was not its wealth, development or form of government, but rather the physical security and participation of women within the political sphere. That finding comes from the 2012 book Sex and World Peace.
Soe Soe Nge said younger generations understand this more acutely than veterans of Burma’s peace process. Pa-O National Organisation member Khun Kyi said his people had grasped the importance of diverse representation, including bringing more young people into the fold. While he admitted his Panglong delegation had only one woman among them, Khun Kyi said they were working to recruit more.
In the peace process, “The representation of younger people and women [is still weak]. But in the PNO, our leaders see that young people will be leaders in the future, so they want us to be engaged in the process of development for our people,” he said.
On Monday, the final day of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, state media proclaimed that peace negotiators had reached agreement on 33 of 41 points on the agenda. But with so many issues that affect women and children missing from the discussions in the first place, activists face a long struggle ahead to advocate for the rights of women in the country’s long-running civil war.
Of the few women granted participatory status, Mi Kun Chan Non was doubtful they were afforded a seat based on merit: “They don’t invite women who can really discuss or give an input. They didn’t bring the women who have experience and can share … it’s just tokenism.”
DVB reached President’s Office spokesperson Zaw Htay over the phone on Friday evening. Asked how many women are representing the government, he replied that he did not know, but that the NLD administration is committed to the 30 percent target “in the future.”
It’s obvious that peace-making is the government’s number one stated priority. But without a truly representative cross-section of stakeholders, women and children will continue to bear the brunt of displacement, gender-based violence, and the physical and emotional trauma that comes hand-in-hand with war.
At the second round of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, the only group in which women seemed to be proportionately represented was within the ranks of Myanmar Police Force personnel providing security for the event. Female police officers at the Myanmar International Convention Centre were a regular sight over the six-day conference — demonstrating that there is at least one arm of the state apparatus with a sizable female contingent, although perhaps not the institution most likely to extend a welcoming hand to bring more women to Burma’s decision-making table.