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Seeing Beyond the Visible: How Development Practitioners Should Think About Gender & Peacebuilding in Myanmar

Women lead the voting lines at Myanmar's national election in 2015.

Women lead the voting lines at Myanmar’s national election in 2015.

Peacebuilding practitioners in Myanmar should re-orient the way we look at peace and conflict processes, by viewing them through the experiences of women. Applying a gender lens to Myanmar’s peace process—which is largely dominated by male elites and leaves out the voices of ethnic communities, will reveal a more complete picture of the strategies being enacted by civil society actors to mitigate the effects of armed conflict. This, in turn, could inform policies that are more likely to generate productive results.

Since the advent of Myanmar’s transition to democracy in 2012, bringing peace to conflict-ridden ethnic areas has become a focus for actors engaged in the country’s development. Western governments including the United States recently hailed the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015 by a handful of ethnic Armed Organizations as an important, albeit nascent step toward the end of decades-long civil unrest. In addition, development practitioners at the national level have begun implementing peacebuilding initiatives of their own.

Much of this work is being done against a backdrop of caution: conflicts in Kachin and Shan, two of Myanmar’s largest states, have left over 120,000 civilians displaced in the last five years alone, making optimism about peace seem premature. Additionally, the presence of a plethora of international “experts” in this space has led to criticism on the goals of the peacebuilding agenda. Development practitioners, well-aware of these cautions, continue to hope that the recently-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government will usher in a new era of nationwide reconciliation, making Myanmar an exemplary case study for conflict practitioners around the world.

Despite this optimism, however, the lens through which many practitioners look at peacebuilding in Myanmar remains incomplete. In the rush to implement solutions, gender, a crucial factor in understanding the effects of armed conflict is often left out of key programming and policy initiatives. This is compounded by the fact that in national-level peace negotiations, women (especially ethnic women) are rarely allowed a voice.

Research has shown that beyond simply a being call for diversity, there are concrete benefits to integrating gender-sensitivity into development work. These include sustainability of programming and, in post-conflict situations, an increased likelihood of sustained peace. Therefore, rather than creating programs that are “gender blind,” practitioners should put gender at the center of the peacebuilding conversation. Seeing peace and conflict from “below” will provide a more complete picture of what is happening on the ground, and inform the creation of more productive policies.

 

The limits of visibility

Actors who call for applying a gender lens to Myanmar’s peace process unanimously suggest that women’s circumstances in Myanmar will improve when the numbers of women in public life increase. Gender inclusion, representation and participation have surfaced as focal points in these discussions, with a host of civil society women’s organizations shedding much-needed light on the lack of women’s participation in formal peace negotiations. Instilling a gender lens onto governance, particularly during the advent of the Suu Kyi-led NLD, these groups suggest, is paramount to advancing Myanmar’s peace agenda. More women in power, the argument goes, will lead to sustainable peace on Myanmar.

As important as this argument is, I suggest that it is incomplete. Incorporating women into pre-existing structures of power, while arguably beneficial, can also replicate hierarchies dominated by elites, leaving out the experiences of ordinary women. The sheer accomplishment of instilling more women in political office doesn’t tell us, for example, how gendered cultural practices are supported by, or lead to the exacerbation of, armed conflict. It doesn’t tell us how certain women become authorized to take on leadership roles, while other women lack even the most basic understanding of gender equality. We don’t yet understand how gender dynamics at the village level authorize wars to remain entrenched, or how resistance to war and refuting gender stereotypes go hand in hand. Issues of access and power are as much a part of “gendering” peace as are questions of women’s visibility.

Development practitioners should widen the lens to look at places where gender and power intersect. This can be done by looking to the ground and examining cultural spaces where women are seemingly invisible: at the village level, in grassroots civil society, and in peacebuilding organizations themselves. We must ask how gender dynamics in these spaces inform social inequalities, keep women at a disadvantage, and cement the roots of conflict.

 

Broadening the lens: Gender and ethnic civilian ceasefire monitoring

One example of an area that can help us better understand the intersections of gender, conflict and peace is civilian ceasefire monitoring. In recent years, ethnic peacebuilding practitioners have begun implementing a new approach to monitoring the fragile ceasefire agreements between Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union of Myanmar Government. Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring, or CCM, began as an answer to the failed United Nations (UN) model of armed civilian protection in contexts such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia throughout the 1990’s. It differs from other peacebuilding approaches in that it engages the direct participation of communities working on the ground, rather than relying on “outside” actors (such as the UN) to monitor conflict. In the CCM approach, villagers themselves are trained to understand the ceasefire agreements in place, and monitor incidents that breach those agreements. Often included in this work is “unarmed civilian protection monitoring,” which engages villagers’ participation in reporting on broader human rights violations (i.e., land grabbing, sexual assault). Notably, civilian ceasefire monitors must remain neutral in their efforts—making a commitment to align with neither side of an armed conflict. They also, by definition, must remain unarmed.

Civilian ceasefire monitoring mechanisms in Myanmar are diverse in their practices, goals and capacities. While some draw from previous experiences monitoring conflict in their regions, others are only beginning to develop the tools and knowledge necessary to achieve their goals. Overall, though, the mechanisms are aligned in their mission to actively monitor violations that persist in ethnic conflict areas.

Recently, I conducted preliminary research for Mercy Corps Myanmar’s Supporting Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring program on the gender dynamics of civilian ceasefire monitoring in Myanmar. The research assessed CCM mechanisms in six ethnic states, where over two-hundred-and–forty-four monitors are working in twenty-four villages and townships.

The research took place in Kayah, a small state in eastern Myanmar that has suffered from decades of conflict with the Union of Myanmar (UOM) government, and where weak infrastructure and food insecurity remain rampant; Kachin, home to the Kachin Independence Organization which has been entrenched in armed conflict since 2011, resulting in the internal displacement of over one-hundred-and-twenty thousand civilians; Chin, a remote, isolated area of Western Myanmar with scant natural resources and little infrastructure and one of the poorest regions in the country; Shan, a state which has suffered from decades of civil conflict and reports the highest levels sexual violence in armed conflict; Kayin (Karen), where land confiscation, natural resource extraction, and foreign-led development projects are ongoing concerns of citizens, with armed actors often implicated as perpetrators; and Mon, whose governing body, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) abstained from signing the NCA out of protest around its non-inclusiveness of other EAOs.

Our team conducted interviews with ten men and eight women, in an attempt to understand the practices of CCM mechanisms in these areas, and what role gender inclusion (and omission) might play in their work.

The findings revealed that a correlation exists between gender inclusion strategies and network functionality. Formalized gender inclusion strategies were discussed by mechanisms in Kayin, Shan and Mon states, who demonstrated conscious efforts to include women’s voices in decision-making processes and leadership roles within the mechanism.

By contrast, mechanisms in Kachin, Kayah, and Chin demonstrated comparably less commitment to including women in their processes. It can be argued that this, in turn, affected the overall functionality of the mechanism. Women from these networks reported being silenced in meetings, excluded from decision-making, and discouraged from working as monitors. This negative feedback, they explained, came from the community, their families, and male members of the mechanisms.

In addition, the findings revealed that gender issues inform the way a mechanism approaches its ceasefire monitoring mandate—specifically, whether to monitor a given bilateral or nationwide ceasefire agreement, or whether to monitor issues of civilian protection –i.e., human rights abuses within the community. Women, we found, consistently requested that their mechanisms attend to problems of sexual violence in conflict, domestic abuse, land grabbing, and other issues of importance to women at the village level. These issues are, of course, pertinent to all members of a community, not just women. However, it was often women who brought them to the forefront of the discussion.

Above all, the research found that seeing the work of civilian ceasefire monitors through a gender lens helps us understand the way these mechanisms function, the strategies they undertake, and the challenges they face. Conversely, by not including a gender lens, we risk negating half of the conversation.

There are numerous other ways in which the “how” and “where” of gendering peace and development practice can intersect: Research on women and customary law, women’s forced labor (for example, trafficking, which I have discussed here), and issues of gender and ethnic nationalism could reveal how peace and conflict processes are informed by women’s experiences. These spaces, though not directly related to women’s participation in public life, are nevertheless worth examining.

As development practitioners, we should ask deeper questions about how peacebuilding can be more inclusive of, and responsive to, women’s needs. Changing the dynamics of firmly entrenched systems of power is not simply a matter of quotas. When we think about gender and peace in Myanmar, how we look is important as where we look. Viewing peacebuilding from “below” helps us see places where gender neutrality is often assumed, rendering women’s experiences invisible. By probing these spaces, we create a new type of visibility—one in which the structures of power that keep women at a disadvantage can finally be laid bare.

This article is the first in a three part series by Erin Kamler on gender, peacebuilding, and development in Myanmar. Read on to the second and third parts.

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Trial of Chinese loggers in Myanmar raises questions about bilateral relations

burmese logging

Chinese demand for prized woods like teak has led to an illegal logging epidemic in eastern Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the trial of over 150 Chinese workers has sparked yet another diplomatic row and has raised questions about the stability of the Sino-Burmese relationship.

Last week Wednesday, a local court in Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging. In addition, another two Chinese minors were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the same offense.

The sentences were handed down in the Myitkyina district court, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. The 155 Chinese nationals, most from neighboring Yunnan province, were apprehended in January of this year by members of the Myanmar army, along with a number of Burmese citizens. At the time of arrest, the loggers were found with 436 logging trucks, along with drugs and around 12000 Chinese Yuan (around 2000 USD) in currency, according to a report from Phoenix News.

“We tried to make the sentences as fair as possible, but we had to consider the environmental point of view,” district deputy magistrate Myint Swe told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service.

“If you look at the number of vehicles, and machinery and the equipment [they were arrested with], you can imagine the amount of environmental damage they’ve done.”

The criminals were convicted  under a 1963 law carrying a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment for abusing or stealing public property. However,  life sentences are commonly only served for 20 years under Myanmar’s legal system, according to the Associated Press.

Searching for an explanation

The trial marks a new low in Sino-Burmese relations. Since the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower project in 2011, the two neighbors’ relations have steadily deteriorated. The relationship was further strained in March when fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel group based in Myanmar’s Kokang Special Region, spilled over the border and killed five Chinese civilians.

The life sentences in this case could simply be the result of a local magistrate’s decision, however the recent downturn in bilateral relations has led some to wonder if there are ulterior motives behind the verdicts given to the loggers. One explanation is that the sentencing was given in response to Beijing hosting  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in June. Despite the Burmese opposition leader speaking Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting of political parties (Daw Suu heads the National League for Democracy and Xi is the Chinese Communist Party leader), the significance of the visit was not lost on Naypidaw and the government might have taken offense at Beijing’s meeting with the opposition leader. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has met with world leaders before, including US President Barack Obama and Indian PM Nahendra Modi, and neither visit provoked such a controversial response from Naypidaw. It is unlikely that Daw Suu’s meeting with Xi is an exception.

Another possible explanation for the harsh sentences is that the Myanmar government wants some sort of insurance against aggressive actions from their neighbor. If the current trend in Sino-Burmese relations is to continue, Myanmar may be looking for some sort of bargaining chip in any future interactions with China. One can imagine that a further escalation of the ethnic conflict along the China-Myanmar border prompts the Chinese to send its military into Myanmar. The Burmese could use the release of the Chinese loggers as an incentive for Beijing to withdraw its troops. While Sino-Burmese relations have indeed reached a nadir in 2015, the Burmese would have to have an extremely cynical view of the relationship to make so shrewd a move.

A third view of the trial invokes a discussion of the so-called “Dream of the Golden Land,” one of the popular frameworks of the nation of Myanmar. Like China’s national humiliation discourse or US President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” the “Dream of the Golden Land” is the Burmese nation’s story about itself, according to Yale University’s Josh Gordon. In the narrative, Myanmar is a land endowed with abundant natural resources, highly desired by foreigners. One has only to look at the colonial period for evidence of this. It is then the duty of the majority ethnic Bamar to protect their “Golden Land” from these covetous outsiders and since independence from the British in 1948 this has been done by expelling Chinese and Indian immigrants from the country in the 1960’s, remaining non-aligned through the Cold War and fighting off a host of ethnic insurgencies for almost six decades. The military junta’s attacks against Daw Suu as a tool of the West, the violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims and the results of this trial could also be interpreted using this narrative. In this view, by sentencing 153 Chinese loggers to life in prison, Myanmar has once again protected itself from the thieving hands of outsiders and is making an example of the offenders to avoid similar incidents in the future.

There are also sovereignty issues at stake in the trial. Kachin state has long been contested by ethnic armed groups, namely the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA has been known to issue permits for resource extraction projects, including logging, in the areas it controls, despite the Myanmar government’s protests. This appears to be the case here.

According to a report from Phoenix News, the workers in question were found with logging permits issued by the KIA. Moreover, the Chinese workers arrested in this case claimed they were unaware that they were breaking the law and believed that their permits were valid.

As parts of Kachin and Shan states have switched hands between rebel groups and central government control over the past decades, Chinese and Thai businessmen have taken advantage by signing shady  logging and mining contracts with insurgent armies and local Myanmar army commanders. In this case, it appears that Myanmar’s long-running civil war may have moved from the battlefield to the court room. By prosecuting Chinese workers for logging with illegal permits issued by the KIA, the Myanmar government is sending a signal that it, not the KIA is the final authority on who gets to extract resources in the country. It is a significant move, especially considering the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Naypidaw and a number of ethnic armed groups.

“Highly concerned with the verdict”

News of the verdicts last Wednesday provoked protests from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that Beijing is “highly concerned” with the sentences and urged the Burmese to consider Chinese concerns and “properly” handle the case, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

On Thursday, Xinhua published a commentary on the matter, condemning the sentences and calling for the loggers to be treated in a “reasonable and sensible way.” The piece noted that China “respects laws and customs of other countries,” but also called the mass sentencing “abnormal,” questioning the impartiality of the verdict.

While the Chinese government has been vocal in its displeasure with the sentencing, it has not yet gone to extraordinary lengths to secure the release of its citizens. Following the announcement of the verdict, some analysts wondered whether Beijing would involve itself in the legal process, a move which could challenge China’s existing foreign policy principles. Since its founding, non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs has been a pillar of the PRC’s foreign policy. Intervening  strongly on the Chinese loggers’ behalf could trigger an evolution in China’s non-interference and would mark an important transition in the country’s foreign policy.

Until now, however, it appears that China will not take such extreme measures to see its citizens freed. Officials from China’s Foreign Ministry were in attendance for the reading of the verdict on Wednesday but there was no evidence of any further involvement.

According to a lawyer familiar with the case, the loggers can file an appeal with the Kachin state judiciary and then to the Supreme Court in Myanmar’s capital, Naypidaw.

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Myanmar fighting escalates, tens of thousands flee into China

mynamar fighting

As fighting in Myanmar grew more intense near the Sino-Burmese border during Spring Festival, media reports became increasingly confused and alarming. Clashes between rebels and government forces in Shan State reportedly claimed the combined lives of more than 100 combatants on both sides. The ramp-up in hostilities has also forced tens of thousands of Burmese civilians to flee their rural villages for refuge in China.

Fighting that first broke out on February 9, and included air and artillery strikes by the Burmese army in Kokang, have led to protracted bouts of guerrilla warfare. Estimates place the number of dead in the violence between 70 and 130, and media reports are unclear how many of these are soldiers or civilians.

However, a spokesman for the Myanmar Defense Ministry, Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo, wasquoted in the Hindustan Times as saying “the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers and around 72 insurgents”. Red Cross officials have also said humanitarian workers in the region have been attacked twice in the past week. The Burmese military has declared three months of martial law in Kokang, although how well such a policy can be enforced remains unclear.

Skirmishes have been most intense near the Burmese town of Laukkai, or Laogai. The village, now described as a “ghost town”, is located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. The refugees sought shelter in Yunnan’s Lincang Prefecture and were first thought to number a few thousand. However, Red Cross workers in Myanmar now claim at least 30,000 people have made the crossing, raising fears both inside and outside China of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The embattled Kokang region is a semi-autonomous part of northeastern Myanmar. Although the national government in Naypyidaw asserts titular control of the area, 90 percent of the local population claim Chinese descent and identify ethnically as Han Chinese. The rebel army now fighting Burmese troops is called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and is headed by former members of the country’s defunct Communist Party.

No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence in Kokang, although it seems likely connected to December ambushes by guerrillas that killed at least seven Burmese soldiers and injured 20 others. As the conflict continues, both sides have presented their own narratives. Burmese military spokesmen have gone so far as to accuse the rebels of employing Chinese mercenaries in an attempt at complete self rule — a charge the guerrillas and Beijing have vociferously denied.

Also at stake for both the Kokang and Burmese authorities are lucrative, if unofficial, trade routes in the area. China’s border with Myanmar is extremely porous, and around Kokang is notorious for booming illicit trafficking of illegally logged timber, rare animals, jade and narcotics.

This article by  was first posted on the GoKunming on 

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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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