Tag Archives: Kachin Independence Organization

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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Trafficking of Women on the Burma-China Border & International Responsibility

Camp for internally displaced persons at Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State on the the Chinese border.

Camp for internally displaced persons at Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State on the the Chinese border.

In recent weeks, warfare in Burma’s Kachin State has increased and is now making its way closer to the Burma-China border. While the international community has paid little attention to the Kachin conflict over the past few years, understanding its complexity is now more important than ever. Failing to do so could have dire implications on the lives of Kachin women, and on diplomatic relations in the region.

Kachin State is an ethnic area in northern Burma that has long suffered from conflict with the central Burmese government. In 2011, a seventeen-year cease-fire was broken, resulting in the onset of active warfare. In spite of ongoing attempts at peace negotiations, the Burmese government has been committing atrocities– including rape, arbitrary arrest and torture– against civilians. The region has been documented to be an active conflict zone resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. According to reports issued by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—the political arm of the Kachin people– over 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have fled to border areas of Burma and China to escape the fighting, and these communities suffer from a lack of basic necessities and little to no foreign aid. Additionally, as the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand has documented, the trafficking of women into China’s neighboring Yunnan province as forced brides has become a growing problem.

Recently, I traveled to Mai Ja Yang, the second largest city in KIO-controlled territory to interview women and men living amid the conflict about the issue of trafficking. I conducted interviews with over 25 trafficking survivors, female soldiers, women’s organizations, lawmakers, cultural leaders, IDP relief workers and administrators from the KIO. I was hosted by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, an organization actively working on the issue.

A child in the Mai Ja Yang camp.

A child in the Mai Ja Yang camp.

My research revealed that gender discrimination, demand from China for brides due to the one-child policy and crippling conditions on the ground due to the military conflict within Kachin State contribute to the problem of trafficking. As former “forced brides” and others reported, the escalation of the military conflict has resulted in a sharp increase in irregular migration. Simultaneously, trafficking has become less of a priority for the KIO government, whose attention is focused on war strategy and the political process, rather than the empowerment of Kachin women.

Now, the Burma army is stepping up its attacks in a move that could increase women’s vulnerability to trafficking. As a recent article in the Irrawaddy Magazine revealed, last week the army launched an attack on a KIO military outpost near Mai Ja Yang, which shares its eastern border with China’s Yunnan province. Mai Ja Yang is home to a growing number of IDPs—men, women and children who have had to flee their homes after their villages were raided. Now, not only are these people’s homes destroyed, but their temporary camps are in danger, as well.

With fighting approaching the border areas, women living in the camps could become even more vulnerable. These women face insecurity in the form of food shortage, lack of infrastructure and basic sanitation. They also face circumstances of gender-based violence and rape. Additionally, lack of a means of income generation influences women to migrate to China to find work—a situation that leaves them vulnerable to labor exploitation and trafficking.

But the international community has been slow to respond to the conflict. As a recent Stimson Report revealed, the precarious nature of the US- China relationship has given American leaders pause in “interfering” in such a sensitive geo-political arena. Additionally, aid workers report having had difficulty accessing the IDP camps due to the ongoing warfare in surrounding areas.

Despite these cautions, it is in the interest of the Chinese, Burmese and Kachin governments to quell an increase in trafficking. Doing so would not only improve the lives of thousands of women, but it could prove beneficial for each country’s relationship with the United States. This is because the US State Department has made trafficking a primary agenda in its international policy. In fact, the State Department’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report ranks every country in the world according to how well they comply with the US mandate against human trafficking. As a result, in recent years trafficking has become a number one priority on the US government’s agenda.

The policies associated with the US government’s anti-trafficking mandate are n0t always beneficial for the women they’re intended to help. As I discuss here, the US State Department sometimes gets it wrong, and trafficking continues to escalate. In the case of Burma and China, however, the US’s mandate could actually serve a useful—even diplomatic– function. Due to the transnational nature of human trafficking, cooperation between governments in the region is essential for the development and implementation of a robust anti-trafficking policy. Collaboration between the Chinese government and KIO, for example, is needed to resolve trafficking cases and bolster prevention efforts on both sides of the border. As wary as the US government is of getting involved in these relationships, the trafficking issue could potentially be an inroad yielding productive results.

Thus far, however, the only people seriously trying to combat trafficking along the Burma-China border are a handful of brave and talented activists on the ground. Mai Ja Yang is home to a number of women’s organizations dedicated to increasing the political and civil rights of women in Kachin society. These women work at great personal risk, while the Third Brigade of the KIA works to maintain their security.

But these organizations can only accomplish so much without international support. Instead of turning a blind eye to the conflict, Western governments should help them develop a robust anti-trafficking policy for Kachin State. Additionally, the US government should put pressure on the Burmese and Chinese governments to de-escalate the conflict in KIO-controlled areas. Failing to do so could not only exacerbate the precarious nature of diplomatic ties in the region, but it could lead to an increase in victims of human trafficking– the very people the US government says it is trying to help.

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