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Advancing Gender Advocacy in Myanmar: Beyond False Promises & Deep Divides

A young female recruit of the Kachin Independence Army. Photo: Asian Correspondent

A young female recruit of the Kachin Independence Army. Photo: Asian Correspondent

Women living in Myanmar’s conflict areas face enormous pressure from ethnic autonomous organizations to support a war effort that does not necessarily serve their interests. These pressures are subtle, and often invisible to development actors who focus on tackling intersections of gender and conflict that are more overt. As a result, advocacy efforts do not always reach women who need them most at the ground level. Building on my previous discussions of the need to see beyond the visible, and overcome divides between international and national-level peacebuilding actors, here I argue that gender advocates should work alongside women in communities to understand the social dimensions of conflict. To do this, we need a new approach to gender advocacy—one that incorporates an ethic of partnership dedicated to bringing these “invisible” spaces to light.

I have a good friend who is an ethnic women’s rights activist in Myanmar. Recently, we sat together in a teashop in Yangon and she told me the story of her mother, who was born in a rural village in Kachin, Burma’s northernmost ethnic state. As a child, her mother traveled on foot weekly between her village and the border of China, where she traded goods to help her family survive. At fourteen, after completing grade eight, she was recruited to join the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA.

She became a soldier and went to fight. She was told this was all for a cause—a cause much greater than her, that meant life or death and the survival of her people. This cause, she was told, was more important than going to school, than pursuing her own aspirations, or escaping to some other, far away-seeming world. This was her world.

She was expected to marry, and have children. Her new husband was also a soldier, and always put the war effort first. In the momentum of these choices that were made for her—choices that were never hers to make—she gave up the possibility of advancing goals beyond those of the movement she was told to support. Goals that her daughter, living out in a world her mother never knew, is now realizing.

My friend is not close with her mother. “She doesn’t understand women’s activism,” she explained. In fact, she added, her mother doesn’t understand the idea of gender equality at all.

There is a rift between this mother and her daughter—a rift around what it means to commit to a cause that is greater than oneself, a cause more important than women’s lives, centered around national identity and the unity of a people. This rift reveals that conflict in Myanmar is not limited to what takes place between ethnic communities and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army)—it happens within communities, and within families themselves.

Women are often made false promises during times of war. As Dyan Mazurana (2012) has noted, ethnic armed organizations often promise women a better life after the conflict is over, reasoning that when peace comes, the goals of gender equality will finally be realized. In the meantime, however, women are expected to take up arms, migrate across borders, or forgo education to support a conflict that is not of their making. These sacrifices go unnoticed until they grow roots and are entrenched—the mother who tells her daughter she should not seek a higher education because it isn’t necessary to advancing the family’s status in society (only marriage and children can do that). The daughter who bears the guilt of her mother’s limitations and sends money home—whatever small amount she can—month by month, from her good job in Yangon. She is welcomed home, but she can never really go home. Her feminist work has set her apart from the very women that work ultimately tries to empower.

 

The social dimensions of gender advocacy

Responding to the plight of women like my friend’s mother, many gender advocacy organizations in Myanmar strive to reach beneficiaries at the most local levels of society. Part of this work involves raising awareness on the ground about conventions such as UNSCR 1325, which is dedicated to women’s participation and representation in conflict prevention and resolution, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which draws a conceptual link between gender parity, peace and development. Grassroots women’s rights organizations seek to advance the goals of these agreements by advocating for women’s participation in peace negotiations and bringing international attention to the effects of armed conflict on women. These organizations also work to combat traditional gender stereotypes, educate communities about peacebuilding and justice, and organize workshops on gender-based violence in ethnic communities.

Yet the impacts of these gender-related programs are not always felt by women at the village level. Conversely, being caught between allegiances within one’s community or family is a social constraint seldom addressed in high-level policy negotiations, or given voice in projects looking at gender discrimination. This may have to do with the fact that many grassroots women’s organizations are, to varying degrees, themselves aligned with the armed organizations controlling the territories in which they work. Some organizations report having difficulty advocating for gender equality among armed actors, revealing a tension constantly felt by advocates who live and work in these environments.

Moreover, being caught between allegiances—what I am calling a “social dimension” of conflict—can affect women working in the structures of rights organizations themselves. An example of this can be seen in the case of another friend, who worked for an ethnic women’s rights organization for many years. At a certain point, she felt ready to advance her career by seeking a job in an international development organization that would afford her a better salary and advance her career. Such opportunities, previously unavailable to Myanmar nationals when the country was still closed, are now on offer to those with the right qualifications. However, when the organization learned about her desire to leave, she was told that doing so would be a betrayal—that the “cause” was more important than her own personal advancement. In essence, the rights organization mirrored the tactics used by conflict actors to hold women back.

Again, we see the subtle ways in which conflict entrenches itself into women’s lives. While international convention and gender advocacy groups work hard to press for change at the policy level, the experiences of women who live and work in conflict-affected communities remains comparatively less understood.

 

Women’s rights and the narrative of war

Ethnic autonomous organizations have, on occasion, spoken out about women’s rights. But their advocacy is rarely attuned to the social dimensions of conflict I am describing. Instead, women’s rights are presented through the lens of the war narrative itself, showcasing how the “other” conflict actor is to blame for women’s mistreatment. In this way, “women’s issues” are used to exemplify the way armed conflict—not the social constraints that perpetuate it—keeps women oppressed.

This dynamic can be seen in the case of the rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers in Northern Shan State in early 2015.  Civil society actors quickly assigned blame for these crimes to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army, which is notorious for committing acts of sexual violence against civilians with impunity. Recently, senior Tatmadaw members agreed to testify in a civilian court—a landmark achievement for ethnic actors seeking to bring the Myanmar military to account for its systemic crimes of sexual violence in conflict. The trial, however, has since derailed due to army’s blocking civilian involvement, preventing Kachin community leaders question the defendants directly. The case highlights the sweeping powers of the military and the lack of recourse for ethnic leaders to seek justice for what they see as being war crimes.

This case, and its fallout, is an illustration of the way women’s bodies and lives are impacted by conflict. But it is more than that. The case also shows us how women’s experiences of violence are used by armed actors themselves to serve a narrative of war. This narrative eclipses the fact that war inherently endangers all women and degrades their human rights. Moreover, and critically, it leaves out the voices of the very women who have been most impacted by conflict—in this case, the Kachin school teachers themselves.

 

The role of international advocates

By focusing on the more overt and dramatic effects of conflict, as well as on policy advocacy issues, gender advocates risk overlooking the more subtle divides and social constraints that many women experience on a daily basis. However, these areas of focus do not have to be exclusive. International gender advocates can work to raise awareness around the seemingly “invisible,” difficult-to-reach spaces of social divide while also advancing policy advocacy aims.

International actors are, in fact, in a unique position to take on these dual challenges. As “outside” actors looking through a more detached lens, they are well-positioned to call attention to the constraints that ethnic women face, but do not feel authorized or safe to push against. They can help shed light on problematic cultural norms and on the “taken-for-granted” ways that ethnic communities hold women back.

Often though, as I’ve pointed out in my previous writing, Western actors doing this type of work are treated with suspicion, seen as paternalistic, or worse, as seeking to advance an agenda of dominance. The “Western versus third world feminist” divide—discussed extensively by post-colonial feminist scholars, is an ongoing problem in many development spaces. This divide, which Chandra Mohanty (2002) characterized as the “third world difference” illustrates the problem of Western feminists who “speak on behalf of” women in the developing world. In doing so, Mohanty explained, Western feminists enact an arrogant assumption that they know what’s best for women in these contexts. As elsewhere, Western gender advocates in Myanmar risk falling into this trap.

In order to avoid replicating this divide, I suggest that Western practitioners re-frame the way we look at gender advocacy, by taking into account the experiences of women who may not seem to be affected by armed conflict in overt ways. The rift between mothers who have had no choice but to follow the mandate of war and their daughters who, in becoming women’s rights activists, have seemingly “abandoned” that cause; the pressures faced by women’s rights organization members who are equally bound to a cause considered more important than their own needs; and the ways in which women’s experiences of sexual violence in conflict become co-opted to support a narrative of war, while leaving out the experiences of the very women who have suffered this violence, all speak to a need for a different kind of attention to gender and conflict.

 

An ethic of partnership

How can development practitioners working on gender strengthen the approach we take to gender and conflict? I suggest we begin by incorporating a new ethic into our work, one that puts importance on women’s experiences of everyday life. I would call this approach an “ethic of partnership.” From a practical standpoint, this approach would take several forms.

First, it would require focusing advocacy efforts on places where women are not currently being reached. Program design should be based on, and inclusive of women at the local level who are rarely given a voice in conversations about women’s rights—in part because they do not have any pre-existing framework to guide their understanding of these issues. Allowing women to speak about their experiences, and taking those experiences seriously, requires being attuned to the paternalism Mohanty warned against. It also requires not being afraid to tackle social problems that are happening within ethnic communities out of fear of being insensitive to culture.

Next, an ethic of partnership would ask that advocates prioritize social inquiries at an institutional level. This would involve utilizing the structures of international organizations to access funding and raise awareness about the seemingly less-obvious places where gender and conflict intersect. International actors are well-positioned to work within these structures, which are inaccessible to many local women. They can build relationships with donors and access fundraising channels that, if done right, can benefit people on the ground in meaningful ways. This requires that local and international practitioners strengthen alliances between their organizations.

Finally, incorporating an ethic of partnership into gender advocacy means approaching this space with a new curiosity about women’s experiences of the mundane. Research in this area could look at the dynamics of family, work, and faith, and connect these inquiries to advocacy projects. It would allow for a diverse array of disciplines to inform new types of interventions. On the programming side, funds benchmarked for “gender” issues should not be considered ancillary to peacebuilding or development work—they should, instead, be made integral components.

Women caught in the throes of conflict grapple with conflicting allegiances—not only to armed organizations, but also to family members, communities, and women’s rights organizations themselves. These struggles show us how women’s everyday lives are impacted by armed conflict. In order to better understand these issues, development practitioners should take a new approach to the places we look and the lens through which we see. Above all else, we need to constantly interrogate the ethical approach we take to our work. Doing so could help give voice to—and ultimately repair—the seemingly impenetrable spaces of division experienced by so many women in Myanmar.

This article is the third in a series by Erin Kamler on gender, development, and Myanmar’s peace process. Here are links to the first and second parts of the series.

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Filed under development, FEATURES, gender, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER

Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Overlooks the Real Key to Peace and Prosperity: Mekong People

When I first heard the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC) last year, the name of the river stood out. I initially thought it was only a mechanism for water management among the six countries that share the longest, mighty river in Southeast Asia. I was not completely wrong, but water management is only a tiny bit of the whole deal.

At the public forum “The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward” organized on April 28 by the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Mr Yang Yi, secretary general of the Chinese Institute of International Studies repeatedly asserts that the LMC is a mechanism to enhance the idea of “Shared River, Shared Future” among the six Mekong countries. It entails a platform to seek peace and prosperity via three cooperation pillars —political and security; economic and sustainable development; and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. It is no accident that these three pillars coincide with ASEAN three pillars of the same name because the LMC aims to pave way for China to strengthen its political and economic influence in ASEAN.

Water resource ranks among the top five priorities of the LMC. Of the 26 measures specified in the declaration to outline the activities of connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction, only one is dedicated directly to water resources management. It lists the establishment of centers for technical exchanges, capacity building, data and information sharing, and joint research projects . The majority of the measures, however, focus on various investment and trade opportunities such as the Belt and Road Initiative, ASEAN+3 partnerships, financial assistance for infrastructure development which opens the door for China to invest in the region.

Other panelists, Cambodian Ambassador Pou Sothirak and Professor Dao Trong Tu, criticized China’s previous lack of engagement in the Mekong River Commission, an organization is set up to promote sustainable development and water management among Mekong countries. Nonetheless, they agreed that the LMC could lead to more discussion potentially on a water treaty, which clearly delegates how the shared international river could be managed—something MRC has failed to do.

But I don’t think it is going to be that simple when China never admits that its upstream projects have destroyed the ecological harmony of the Mekong River.

In the middle of the dry season, between January and February 2016, the Chiang Khong riverbank community, located in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, 200 kilometers downstream of Jinghong Dam, suffered from the abrupt rise of the Mekong River. This is the time when local villagers tend river gardens and reap dry season harvests due to the robust sediment deposited along the river bank during the monsoon season. But this year, the fluctuating water level caused locals to shake their heads when their source of food and income submerged under water.

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Further down in Loei, a fishery network lamented for the decreasing catches and damaged fishing equipment due to the “Water Tsunami.” In Bung Karn Province, 200 kilometers downstream from Loei, the Mekong level rose 2 meters and flooded locals’ riverbank gardens. Some gardeners had to pick up remaining scallions and corns.

In March 2016, the Mekong River at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand rose rapidly again and showing no sign of subsiding. It was officially the beginning of summertime and a month away from Songkran, Thailand’s traditional new year and the most important family gathering occasion in the country. Religious sites that usually submerged under Mekong River in rainy season would appear for Thais and Laotians as well as tourists to revere for the annual special occasion. Locals usually set up restaurants and leisure rest spots for tourists on the riverine sand bars in the middle of the Mekong River. But this year, sand bars were inundated; religious sites remained underwater. Less tourists showed up.

On April 13, 2016, the first day of Songkran, the water still remained high. Subsequently, district chief of Woen Phra Baht in Nakhon Phanom cancelled the annual Buddha footprint ceremony, an ancient religious ceremony that attracts local Thais and Laotians for centuries. The new year became a quiet time by the Mekong River. Restaurant owners indicated that they usually earn between 500,000 to 1,000,000 baht (15,000-30000 USD) during the December to April dry season (December-April), but that income had been unstable and decreasing over the past several years due to fluctuating Mekong flow.

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The Mekong River first meets Thai border at a river town called Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province. Here, the Mekong River Commission set up a hydrological station as part of its effort to contribute data for better-practice water management among the four downstream Mekong countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Chiang Saen Hydrological Station shows the water flow rate between March and April in 2016 remained high around 2,000 cubic meters per second and dropped to 1,000 cubic meters per second within a couple of days. After a week, the graph climbed up to near 1,500 cubic meters per second. What happened?

On March 16, Xinhua reported that China would release water from its dam following Vietnam’s request. Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated 2,000 cubic meter of water will be discharged from the dam every second between March 15 to April 10. In response, Pham Binh Minh , Vietnamese deputy prime minister at the time, congratulated the positive move to alleviate drought. Thailand’s coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha  cheered happily for China’s considerate move. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen  joined the acclaim. Laos took a step forward and announced that it too would discharge water to help relief devastating condition downstream.

Looking back at the hydrological data, the Mekong flow rate has been fluctuating for the past few years when, naturally, the volume ought to be decreasing in dry season. Comparing the flow rate between 2014, 2015 and 2016, the number remain around 2,000 cubic meters between March and April for second for all three years. Simply said, China’s altruistic move is actually turning into an annual practice. But locals are not aware of this change unless China announces its plan and notify Mekong downstream authorities to spread the news. Nonetheless, by the time the notification reaches riparian communities, the fish are already gone and the riverbank gardens are already submerged.

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The Lancang River contributes nearly 70 percent of total Mekong catchment area at Chiang Saen in wet season. The number jumps closer to 100 percent in dry season. For this reason, downstream communities will feel any changes happening upstream. It also means that China is in control of how the river flows.

LMC_05_dryseason LMC_04_wetseason

As of 2016, China has already built at least six mega-dams on the Lancang with a total capacity over 15,000 megawatts. The closest dam to lower Mekong countries is the Jinghong dam located in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan less 100km from China’s border with Laos and Myanmar.  This dam is often mentioned in China’s media release on water discharge. The Jinghong dam is China’s water gate, thus China has complete control over when it shall open or close.

Downstream riparian communities have been asking China for prior notification on dry season  discharge from Lancang dams and to share hydrological information for many years already. Nonetheless, China never taken full responsibility.

“It becomes politics when China announces its discharge,” said Montree Chantawong, a researcher who has been monitoring the Mekong flow for more than a decade now. He illustrates the water flow graph to show that China’s dam discharge is nothing new. The higher volume aims to facilitate Chinese large cargo ships during the dry season. The discharge also helps to generate electricity and make way for new water in the reservoir during the rainy season. What’s new is China’s approach to talk about Mekong water management through the LMC mechanism.

China’s altruistic move came before the release of Sanya Declaration at the first LMC summit on Hainan Island on March 23-24 . The two-day meeting marks the official beginning of cooperation among Mekong countries. However, Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at ISIS and one of the panelists at the LMC public forum, left the audience with a note to think about China’s spatial location and subsequent posture towards Mekong downstream countries. “If China sees its neighbors as the front yard, it would treat its neighbor with respect. If it sees it as its backyard, then the treatment would be different.”

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On the same day that leaders gathered in Sanya, the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces released a statement to the same leaders. The call was simple: admit the transboundary impacts caused by development projects, mainly dams and rapids blasting. The impacts of Chinese dam discharge on Mekong downstream ecosystems and livelihoods were immense in the beginning of 2016—a clear example of transboundary impacts of dams.

The network further emphasized the need for respect and involvement of Mekong grassroots communities . As many riparian communities still depend deeply on Mekong fluvial ecosystems to sustain their livelihoods and nourish their cultures, the Mekong governments ought to take this into account when they design development plans for their countries. To ensure that the needs of the people are met, it is crucial for all Mekong governments to recognize the importance of grassroots riparian communities and respect their indigenous knowledge for the river they depend on for their livelihoods, cultures and economy. A democratic process is more than ever necessary to leverage the voice from the ground to be heard at the international geopolitical platform especially in the region where grassroots participation increasingly become restricted while dictatorship flourishes in the region. In addition, the statement calls Mekong governments to take responsibility to provide mitigation for damages and losses caused by dams and navigation projects. An accountable and participatory water management mechanism must be assured and enforced to prevent further negative environmental and social impacts on downstream communities, rather than transforming a mother river to a dead river.

While the leaders smile and hold hands tight for an unprecedented moment in history that could lead to sustainable water governance in the Mekong Region, grassroots riparian communities suffer from unnatural flow of the Mekong River. The applause for China’s move towards regional peace and prosperity will only be a façade if the Mekong leaders never take a moment to seriously promote public participation. It will only set up the beginning of a countdown to water conflicts.

Four numbers of the Sanya Declarations: 6, 3, 5 and 26.

  • 6 indicates the six member countries in the Mekong Region.
  • 3 points at the three cooperation pillars: political and security, economic and sustainable development and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The three pillars coincides with ASEAN’s three cooperation pillars. This is no accident. The Sanya Declaration paves way for China to strengthen its political and economic partnership with ASEAN.
  • 5 is the key priorities during the initial stage, namely connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction. Simply put, these are the main programs China hopes to implement and enhance its domination over other members.
  • 26 means the twenty-six measures detailing the five key priorities. Most of them map out how to place downstream countries in China’s “go global” economic policies like the Belt and Road Initiative and affirms its influences in ASEAN+3 partnership.

 

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Filed under ASEAN, China, development, FEATURES, Lancang Mekong Cooperation, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, water release, Yunnan Province

“Peace Process” Versus “Peacebuilding Project” – Why Nuance Matters in Myanmar’s Development Landscape

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This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. The first article in the series is linked here.

Development practitioners in Myanmar should view the phenomenon of “peacebuilding” as two separate, but intersecting projects—one driven by Myanmar nationals, and the other driven by international actors. The “peace process” is a closed system invested in the balance of power between ethnic communities and the Myanmar government, while another project—what I call the “peacebuilding project” represents, among other things, an international contest for geopolitical control in Mainland Southeast Asia. In this piece, I will discuss the nuances of these two different, but intersecting projects, the limitations of development practice within them, and the implications of all of this for women on the ground.

Since Myanmar opened its doors to the world in 2012 after decades of isolation, many international organizations and the governments supporting them have turned their efforts to repairing a nation perpetually reliant on armed conflict to solve disputes over ethnic autonomy and resource control. The UK, The US, Norway, the European Union and others have bolstered funding for peace-related programming and inter-communal violence reduction, resulting in a flourish of new initiatives by civil society, local and international organizations. This investment has occurred alongside the lifting of economic sanctions—a policy shift that Western governments believe is key to helping the country transition to democracy.

Despite the international community’s desire to be involved, Myanmar’s peace process is highly internal—what I would, in fact, call a “closed system.” The country’s Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, comprised of sixteen Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union Peace-making Work Committee, the peace-making arm of the government (now termed the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee) have been in dialogue since 2013, all the while resisting international involvement. One notable exception was the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, which international and local actors were invited to observe.

Myanmar’s peace process differs from that of other countries in recent history. The 2004 peace agreement in Aceh, Indonesia, for example, was brokered by the government of Finland, with the goal of allowing the international community to provide humanitarian aid to a country reeling from both conflict and natural disaster. Similarly, the Bantay Ceasefire agreement of Mindanao, in The Philippines, incorporated an international ceasefire monitoring team. Unlike these countries, which championed international involvement in ending civil conflict, Myanmar’s peace actors seem committed to keeping the international community at bay.

But the international community is not just sitting idly by. Parallel to Myanmar’s peace process, another project is underway, which operates independently of ethnic armed actors and the Myanmar government. This project, led by international actors, is also invested in helping Myanmar achieve peace—only for different reasons. I call it Myanmar’s “peacebuilding project”—a movement led from the outside by international governments who, in addition to advancing humanitarian aims, are also working to further their own geopolitical interests in Mainland Southeast Asia.

These objectives, while shared by a number of Western governments, are heavily US-dominated. With tens of millions of dollars in aid invested in Myanmar’s development in 2015 alone, the US has taken the lead among Western governments in engaging the former pariah state—now making sweeping economic, political and social reforms. Doing so is part of the US’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region—a process of re-orienting foreign policy toward an area of the world that the US sees as central to the political and economic gains of the 21st century. As part of this re-balancing act, the US’s engagement with Myanmar has already been hailed as a success.

Within this context, the US is playing out a number of agendas in the form of its “peacebuiliding project.” The primary goal involves balancing against China’s rise in the region. Seen as a heavy-handed northern neighbor intent on plundering Myanmar of natural resources in the form of its hydroelectric dam, oil and gas pipeline, copper mining and logging projects, China’s reputation in Myanmar has recently diminished. Myanmar’s government has accused China of stalling the peace process by supporting ethnic autonomous organizations such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in the north—groups who refuse to sign the NCA due to grievances over the its non-inclusivity. Capitalizing on this unpopular sentiment, the US seems intent to drive home the point that by contrast, its own peace agenda is benign in nature.

The second goal of the US’s peacebuilding project is to divert international attention away from the US’s disastrous involvement in the Middle East. Helping Myanmar achieve peace represents a step in the right direction for the US as it struggles to uphold its brand of promoting democratization and human rights around the world. Ever concerned with the potential decline of its image, the US is relying on the success of Myanmar’s democratic elections coupled with advances in the peace process as a marker of its own foreign policy gains. The hard part, of course, comes with the slow progress being made toward actual peace.

Finally, in addition to these political motivations, I suggest that there is a genuine ethical incentive on the part of the US government to advance a peacebuilding agenda in Myanmar. While a decisive end to armed conflict has yet to be seen, US agencies are investing in programs being implemented by international, local and civil society groups that work to empower people on the ground in conflict areas. Examples include a US Embassy small grants program that supports local civil society organizations conducting human rights, environmental awareness and civic engagement training; USAID funding for humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations in conflict-affected areas; and peace education and social integration programs that have successfully impacted ethnic communities. While geopolitical concerns do steer the peacebuilding project, I suggest that this project should not simply be seen as a form of Western dominance. Rather, like all complicated processes, it should be understood according to its nuances, and not painted over with too broad a brush.

Problematic polarizations

The problem, however, is that many actors working in the peacebuilding arena—as well as those critiquing it from the outside—do just that. Because the West’s “peacebuilding project”—a project that means many things to many people—is so complex, national actors in Myanmar often conflate the “good” development work being done around peace with the West’s less altruistic geopolitical aims. This, in turn, has created a culture of mistrust in Myanmar’s development space—an ongoing assumption that international actors are trying to “meddle” in a process that should remain internal. Some national actors have suggested that international organizations are moving too quickly to implement humanitarian and economic strategies in a country still fragile and rife with conflict. Others have gone so far as to suggest that the international community “take its money elsewhere,” expressing disdain for what they see as being a disingenuous agenda.

These actors represent a diverse array of civil society human rights activists and organizations, many of whom worked in exile prior to Myanmar’s “opening” in early 2012. Indeed, the history of Myanmar’s civil society activist culture is characterized by an “inside-outside” dichotomy, in which numerous groups were forced to conduct their efforts across the border in Thailand for fear of being discovered by a repressive and hostile government. Many suffered the consequences of their bravery in protesting, demonstrating, and taking up arms. Now, the country has officially “opened” to these groups and their constituents, in a radical reversal accompanied by an influx of donor support.

An example of this reversal can be seen in the case of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, or KWAT, a civil society organization with whom I worked between 2011 and 2014. Prior to 2012, KWAT was wary of being coded as a “rebel” organization by the US government, who, the organization members suspected, viewed them suspiciously because of their involvement with the Kachin Independence Organization. Now, KWAT receives support from that very same government in the form of a grant to research the trafficking of women in Kachin State. Given the quick and quite radical shift in support for civil society actors like KWAT, it is understandable why critics would be skeptical of international involvement.

I suggest, however, that this “broad brush” suspicion of international involvement in peacebuilding can be dangerous for those who live under the conditions of armed conflict. As other scholars have noted, peace processes in which international communities play an ambiguous role can end up entrenching existing conflict dynamics, even after peace agreements are signed. This can happen when ethnic armed groups are authorized to make vague deals that circumvent the rule of law—deals legitimized by an international community whose involvement is too weak to put pressure on national actors to adhere to human rights standards.

This occurred in Bosnia, where, as Mary Kaldor (2016) has explained, following the Dayton Agreement that officially brought an end to war, police and judicial reform processes were implemented at the behest of international community. These reforms, however, were obstructed by corrupt political leadership. While the peace agreement held, the power dynamics of the conflict actors became entrenched. Kaldor notes that this often occurs in post conflict situations, where remnants of the conflict and the return to war loom as constant possibilities. Police rarely attend to human rights violations, and a historic culture of impunity leaves people in fear.

These dangers are ever-present in the Myanmar context, where armed conflict still rages, and gains of the ceasefire agreements in place are fragile, at best. Thus, a strong international presence that holds conflict actors accountable is not only desirable, it is essential. For this reason, Myanmar nationals who genuinely want to empower their communities should resist the temptation to see all international actors as nefarious.

Implications for women

All of this has implications for women living under the conditions of conflict. By viewing international involvement in the peace process with suspicion, national actors reinforce an agenda of keeping that process “closed.”  In doing so, however, women who are affected by the outcomes of this process could end up at a stark disadvantage. This could happen in a number of ways.

First, keeping the peace process internal leaves open the potential for social norms that do a disservice to women to go unchanged. Cultural practices like customary laws that discriminate against women, for example, often hold strong under the guise of ethnic nationalism. By resisting—or flat out rejecting—international involvement, national actors risk creating barriers for women who need these structures to change. As I will discuss in my next article, international efforts around gender advocacy could make important strides in resisting these norms.

Moreover, keeping the process internal risks cementing women’s inequality in peace agreements themselves. In the Myanmar context, the continuous breaches of bilateral ceasefire agreements, the escalation of conflict in various parts of the country during the signing of the NCA, and the NCA’s vague stance on gender inclusivity reveal the weak nature of the agreements in place. Until these agreements are strengthened and taken seriously, women’s needs will go unaddressed. While there is a call on the national level to strengthen gender equity within the NCA, this call risks being overridden by the need to achieve consensus around its signing. In the rush to bring all parties to the table, neither the gender inclusion component of this agreement, nor the rule of law that would enforce it are being adequately addressed. International actors could put pressure on the parties involved to make gender equality an imperative in the NCA, and in rule of law capacity building more broadly.

Finally, if the international community doesn’t take a hard look at its own contradictory agendas, it risks mis-stepping in ways that could have detrimental consequences. Clarifying the agendas of the “peacebuilding project” will require international actors to make some difficult decisions about which investments best serve the needs of communities in Myanmar.

For example, relief programs for internally displaced persons that fail to comprehensively assess the conditions of conflict areas can create more harm than good. Weak accountability mechanisms of international financial institutions investing in development projects pose threats to women in rural environments where those projects are operationalized. Additionally, power relations between ethnic armed organizations and women who live in the territories they control should be taken into consideration in programming that engages these actors. As development practitioners, we must constantly interrogate our own interventions to ensure they are not doing a disservice to the very people we are trying to help.

The politics of peace are not without consequence for women. The closed system of the peace process poses specific risks—as does the international peacebuilding project, if its complexities and contradictions are not fully understood. One resists outside involvement, while the other balances multiple, sometimes competing aims. Understanding the nuances of these projects will not only advance development practice around peacebuilding, it will also illuminate the pitfalls and possibilities for ethnic women in Myanmar, who stand to lose the most from the continuation of armed conflict.

This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. Read on to the third part here. The first article in the series is linked here.  

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