Towards a feminist foreign policy in Myanmar
This article is part of the web dossier on Feminist Foreign Policy that we produced in cooperation with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
Myanmar is a nation in turmoil. Still recovering from over six decades of authoritarian rule following independence from British colonialism in 1949, civil war continues to wreak havoc on the country’s ethnic areas. Despite high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), human rights issues have remained woefully de-prioritized under the new democratically-elected government.
In 2015, the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by Government of Myanmar and eight Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), a series of national level Union Peace Conferences (UPCs) and ongoing regional political dialogues, held promise, but Myanmar’s peace process remains stalled. In summer 2016, conflict escalated in Kachin and Northern Shan states, exacerbating an already fragile relationship between the non-signatory groups to the NCA and the Government of Myanmar.
In 2017, the military advanced its campaign of “genocide ” and “crimes against humanity” against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State (Human Rights Council, 2018; UN News, 2018) —unspeakable acts of government-sanctioned violence that have, by late 2018, all but undone the goodwill between the NLD and the international community. International foreign policy in Myanmar now hangs in the balance as the conceptual divide over the issues of peace, pluralism, and inclusivity widen.
Male dominated peace process
At the same time, the issue of gender inclusion remains a critical concern in the current context, and an essential component for advancing the fragile, stalled peace process. As various civil society women’s rights groups have documented, the nationwide peace process has been completely male dominated. The formal peace process bodies and mechanisms, as well as the ceasefire negotiations and NCA documents themselves have not been substantively inclusive or representative of women. Simultaneously, the social status of women remains precarious, marked by patriarchal norms.
It is against this backdrop that women leaders from Myanmar’s ethnic states have come together for a common cause: to increase women’s rights policy making and gender sensitive outcomes in the country’s peace process. These groups, looking at Myanmar through a women’s rights and women, peace, and security (WPS) lens, highlight the problems women face as a direct result of conflict. These include, among others, sexual violence in conflict (Women’s League, 2014); lack of resources for women living in remote or conflict-affected regions (AGIPP, 2018); and women’s continued under-representation (AGIPP, 2017a) at the decision-making level and lack of meaningful participation in politics (AGIPP, 2017b).
As Ban Seng Bu, Coordinator for one such group, the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP) explained, "It's an undeniable fact that women's participation in decision making in the peace process is crucial for a just and sustainable peace process in Myanmar. International actors should support local women policy makers with capacity building and advocacy efforts".
These groups are supported by a robustly resourced, well-intended international community comprised of Western governments, NGOs and international bodies such as the UN and EU, whose unified mission is to help end the long-running civil conflict in Myanmar. With their help, ethnic women’s civil society organizations have started to demand the attention of the Myanmar government, and stand to make important gains in securing policy change around women’s rights.
Cultural and policy shifts required for a feminist foreign policy
These gains, however, are coming at a cost. Pluralism—a core tenet of feminist philosophy—has not yet been realized by many of these groups, though their stated aims incorporate calls for diversity and social inclusion. Certain ethnic minorities are still excluded from both the formal political process, as well as the advocacy work of those who critique it. As a result, the strategies for achieving feminist policy aims in Myanmar are not open to all.
Consequently, it is imperative that international actors adopt a strategic approach to supporting women’s rights policy-making initiatives in Myanmar. Failing to see the nuances of exclusion that are taking place within this movement risk putting the movement as a whole in peril. Rather than blanketly supporting the peace process, and all actors that comprise it, the international community should target organizations, programs and activities that clearly seek to achieve social inclusion—key components of feminist thought and practice.
A feminist foreign policy asks that international actors who are investing in, building diplomatic relations with, and intervening in another country’s peace process, support women’s rights policy making initiatives, and treat these initiatives as a fundamental component of nationwide peace. However, it also requires something more. To accomplish these comprehensively inclusive aims, a truly feminist foreign policy requires cultural, as well as policy shifts.
A commitment is needed by grassroots civil society actors and the international community supporting them, to resisting, and ultimately changing, norms that entrench discrimination along ethnic, religious, and class lines. It is through the combination of policy-making at the government level, and norm changing at the grassroots, that Myanmar will achieve such feminist aims.
Many of Myanmar’s ethnic women leaders are well aware of this need. As Nang Phyu Phyu Lin, National Adviser for the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP) remarked,
“Feminism is all about addressing inequality issues and contributing to the development and peace of nations. So, everyone should be aware of, and support the policies which will promote the rights of people, equal distribution of resources, and the representation of those who have been systematically discriminated against, including women. International actors should encourage the government and other authority holders to respect the ethnic people’s rights, ensure equal distribution of resources (including natural resources), and review and revise discriminatory laws.”
In practice, however, the inclusion about which these women leaders speak so passionately remains unrealized. This can be seen in the civil society responses to three of Myanmar’s conflict situations, and the lack of inclusion in advocacy to remedy them. In the past months, the conflicts in Kachin, Northern Shan, and Rakhine have been identified as being among the direst from a human rights perspective. The recent UN fact finding mission of the Human Rights Council (2018) labeled the military campaign targeting civilians in Rakhine “crimes against humanity” (UNHCR, 2018) and described, with equal gravity, the ongoing human right atrocities taking place in Kachin and Northern Shan. These conflicts represent extreme examples of violence and its implications on women in conflict, who remain critically vulnerable to gender-based sexual violence, as well as social, political, economic, and physical insecurity.
In tandem with the UN fact-finding mission’s efforts to uncover the realities taking place in these contexts, women’s groups themselves have shed light on the ongoing atrocities in Kachin and Northern Shan. Thirty-two Kachin CSOs recently issued a letter urging the UN to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the military’s violence against civilians in Kachin (Radio Free Asia, 2018).
However, while the letter also made reference to Rakhine, efforts by women’s groups to speak out against atrocities being committed there have been few and far between. Notably, only one organization, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), issued a press statement condemning the violence of August, 2017 immediately in its aftermath (KWO, 2018). In response, the KWO was rewarded by the U.S Embassy in a ceremony honoring Myanmar’s “Women of Change” (Mizzima, 2018). The KWO continued to speak out, issuing a statement on International Women’s Day saying,
“No women from Burma of any background should experience these attacks, not the Rohingya, not the Shan, not the Kachin and not the Karen. We should not suffer at the hands of our husbands and we should not suffer at the hands of the Burma Army” (Progressive Voice Myanmar, 2018).
International actors, recognizing the importance of such voices of solidarity, are calling for an increase in inclusion efforts by women’s groups. As Nang Ohnmar Than, Development Adviser at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Yangon reflected,
“In an extremely ethnically diverse country like Myanmar, where emerging women's groups and networks are struggling to advocate for gender participation amidst different episodes of conflicts and violence, it is important that international actors support efforts towards inclusiveness, integrating perspectives of women at the grassroots level, as well as the voices of female victims of SGBV.”
Despite these calls from both the grassroots and the international community, norm changing continues to stall in Myanmar’s women’s rights policy making space. Rohingya women are largely absent from umbrella organizations and alliances that work on these issues and are all but absent at the government level—for example, in the technical working groups under the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW)—a mechanism aiming to secure women’s rights policies at the national level.
While the international community is partnering with civil society in this path-breaking engagement with government, they remain reluctant to challenge women’s rights advocates on the issue of inclusion, and on the broader practice of norm changing—fearing, perhaps, that the important gains they have made will stall. This reluctance emerges in ongoing funding to civil society organizations who demonstrate few efforts to bolster the voices of minority women in their advocacy and programming endeavors.
The notable silence of women’s rights groups in condemning the genocide in Rakhine speaks to the cultural dimensions not only of armed conflict, but also of rights-building initiatives themselves. The ongoing challenge of inclusion in women’s CSOs hinders the development of a coherent feminist agenda among rights defenders in Myanmar and threatens to further cement divisions and hinder progress around women’s rights.
One prominent women’s rights defender explained the challenges faced by women’s CSOs regarding the issue of inclusion. “We are carefully and quietly trying to step in to Rakhine,” she said. “But for the organizations like [ours], who are doing advocacy to the government, it’s very difficult. Our position is to work on the edge.” This rights defender went on to explain that if her organization was to publicly adopt a stance of support toward Rohingya women, the organization and its members could be personally targeted, and their security put at risk. “There is no protection mechanism. Rule of law and security is very weak,” she explained.
Such security concerns should be taken seriously by international actors expecting action from the CSO community around the violence in Rakhine. Yet, diplomacy in the international arena requires a willingness to state publicly where one stands on issues of importance to one’s international partners. In the face of these challenges, it must be asked: How can the international community best support and encourage women’s CSOs to undertake activities geared toward inclusivity, while simultaneously respecting, and working to remedy, their security concerns?
Embracing a Cultural Shift
Given these dynamics, the best way for the international community to support a true feminist agenda is Myanmar is to encourage the comprehensive representation of voices from all areas of society, particularly those like the Rohingya who are socially ostracized—by members of rights groups themselves. At the same time, international actors must promote political change at the highest levels of government, so that rule of law can be implemented to protect rights defenders.
The international community (and the EU in particular) should refrain, however, from blanketly imposing sanctions on Myanmar as a way of putting pressure on the military, as such sanctions would likely hurt the thousands of women working in various precarious labor sectors (such as the textile industry), as well as the activist CSOs who continue to do critical work. Responding with sanctions would not constitute a feminist foreign policy response to the challenge of inclusion.
Instead, specific actions by the international community that do not involve the use of sanctions could include:
1) Benchmark funding for CSO programmes that focus on social inclusion and incorporate monitoring and evaluation of relevant targets and outcomes aiming to increase the participation and representation of marginalized minority women.
2) Increase pressure on the military and NLD government to ensure protections for civil society actors, and to strengthen the rule of law.
3) Publicly call upon members of government to keep the space for CSOs “open,” so rights defenders can continue their work without fear.
At the same time, civil society women’s organizations, recognizing the value of their international benefactors as key to the maintenance of their operations, should understand that successful diplomacy calls for a willingness to take visible steps to shift even the most seemingly entrenched social values. Backing their words with actions would involve promoting more diversity in the women selected to serve on working groups, committees, and assume positions of authority within these organizations.
This, again, would require a cultural shift—from a hierarchical structure that rewards obedience and privileges certain religions and ethnicities, to one that encourages pluralism within the ranks of civil society leadership. Some women’s organizations are already embracing these norm changes. Others will be hard pressed to do so, but they must, if they wish to realize their stated feminist aims.
Conclusion: Towards a Feminist Foreign Policy in Myanmar
Important gains have been made at the grassroots and national levels in Myanmar. However, while the international community has done, thus far, a vital and exemplary job supporting the women’s rights agenda there, these gains will fall short if Myanmar’s women activists and the organizations that support them do not commit to embracing pluralism. Feminist theory calls for the transformation of not only political policies, but the values held by society. It asks that we attend to the emancipation of all people.
Those working toward achieving feminist aims should embrace a cultural shift toward true social inclusion, while pushing for rule of law to ensure that norm-changing behaviors can be undertaken without retribution. Only then will these actors be on their way to achieving a true feminist foreign policy in Myanmar and paving the road to sustainable peace.
More information: Article “One Small Step for Feminist Foreign Policy”
Erin Kamler is an academic researcher, writer, and international gender specialist who has worked in Southeast Asia for the past decade. Her new book, Rewriting the Victim: Dramatization as Research in Thailand's Anti-trafficking Movement will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019.
Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP). (2018). The ‘localization’ of women, peace, and security in Myanmar. AGIPP Policy Brief no. 5. May 2018. Yangon: AGIPP.
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