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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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The Salween River is Not for Sale

TAUNGGYI, Shan state, Myanmar

It is billed to become the biggest dam in SE Asia. The Mong Ton dam project on the Salween River will flood a vast area, with a reservoir extending 380 km upstream over an area home to thousands of Shan and other ethnic groups in a region of important biodiversity.

It could well become Myanmar’s most controversial dam project since the Myitsone on the Irrawaddy. (This dam was suspended by President Thein Sein in 2010).

Sinohydro, The Three Gorges and Southern Power grid form a Chinese consortium with a 40 % stake in partnership with EGAT Thailand’s Electricity Authority (40%) and local partners IGE.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Thousands of villagers supported by civil society in the Shan state are angry that their Salween –the last undammed river of size and importance in the region- is being dragged into the nexus of ever expanding hydro-power and big business.

The strength of anti-dam sentiments took the EIA consultants by surprise at a recent public meetings in Shan state conducted by SMEC (The Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation from Australia).

The Australian consultants have been engaged by the developers to conduct EIA and SIA – Environmental and Social Impact Assessments.

They received a hostile reception from hundreds of Shan people crammed into a small hall many of them sporting “No Dam “bandalas and placards.

The Smec consultants were told the assessment period was too short.The villagers have been told very little by the government and these corporations.

The recent protest against the gigantic Mong Ton dam project on Salween River is only one part of a growing anti- dam movement struggling to protect the culture and livelihoods of millions stretched across three ethnic states in Myanmar -Shan, Karen, and Kayah comprising diverse minority peoples.

Hundreds of kilometers to the south, Kesan – (the Karen Environmental Network) organized a Salween day to mark the global protection of rivers day March 14th 2015, to celebrate the river’s beauty and vital importance to ethnic peoples.

Up north the Mong Ton dam would flood pristine teak forests; the planned Hatgyi dam in Karen state would flood two wildlife north sanctuaries. Cultural and religious heritage sites will be inundated.

Banners defiantly proclaimed on the Thanlwin River/Salween in Myanmar: NO DAMS! THE SALWEEN IS NOT FOR SALE! On International Rivers Day of Protest celebrated on rivers around the world from the Amazon to the Mekong.

Ms Hsa Moo, a Kesan media coordinator addressed a crowd of several hundred Karen villagers. “When the government in Nay Pyidaw looks at the Salween River and other rivers in Burma, they don’t see its beauty: they only see Thai Baht, Chinese Yuan, US dollars and Indian Rupees. For them, the rivers flowing through the lands of our ethnic communities are nothing more than a potential source of revenue. Not revenue for local people, but for the central government:

They want to dam our rivers, sell most of the energy they generate to neighboring countries, and keep the money for themselves.’ She concluded “Our rivers are not for sale.”

Statements from the Naypidaw parliament indicate the government‘s prime concern is not with the potentially disastrous impacts, but with the country’s energy shortages.

In February 2013 the Deputy Minister of Power Myint Zaw told parliament that six hydropower dams had been approved for the Salween River, one of the region’s longest flowing for 2800 kms from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, through China and Myanmar.

The projects in Shan State include the Kunlon, with a capacity of 1400 megawatts, Naungpha (1000MW), Mann Thaung (200MW) and Mong Ton(aka Tasang dam)   (7110MW). Other dams include Ywarthit (4000MW) in Kayah State and Hatgyi (1360MW) in Karen State.

Professor Maung Maung Aye chief advisor to the MEI –Myanmar Environment Institute speaking in a panel discussion in Yangon commented; “today damming the rivers is the government’s first principle for developing more energy, instead of being the last option for the nation.”.

The NGO Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) also strongly criticized the government’s failure to adopt an energy policy that would include investment in solar power, wind power and other clean and green energy solutions that have recently dropped in price, and become far more affordable..

Upstream from Myanmar the Salween( Nujiang) in China had been the target for 13 dams in 2004. However in a dramatic reversal for Chinese hydropower, former premier Wen Jiabao declared a moratorium on dam construction on the River Nujang in response to a strong environmental campaign led by Green Watershed, supported by several Chinese geologists.

The Mong Ton (aka Tasang) dam will be by far the largest on the Salween River in Burma, producing 7,100 megawatts of electricity, 90 percent of which will be exported to China and Thailand.

The massive reservoir will stretch across almost the entire length of Shan State flooding huge areas and deluging hugely important areas of biodiversity and forest. Villagers who attended the recent SMEC –run consultation in early April, held up anti-dam placards and handed out a statement to the Australian staff, raising concerns about how the dam would threaten their livelihoods and trigger renewed armed conflict.

HYDRO- DAMS FUELLING CONFLICT

Nang Wah Nu, a representative from Shan State in Parliament reported last year that preparation work has already begun on monster Mong Ton dam designed to deliver 7000 mw of power, but only 15% for the Myanmar.

The Shan parliamentarian lamented “no information had been provided to residents who fear their homes, rice fields and pagodas will be flooded”. She warned   “Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss the project.”

Indeed fighting has broken out in the proximity of dam projects with more than 50 clashes recorded between armed ethnic groups and the army during the current period of peace talks according to the Burma Rivers Network coalition.

Fresh fighting has erupted in southern Shan State in March 2013, after the army launched an offensive against the Shan State Army-North to force its troops out of bases along the Thanlwin (Salween) located near dam sites in Nona Pha and Mong Tong. This forced the displacement of 2000 villagers in Tangyan township.

A spokesperson for Karen Rivers Watch reported that the army’s border guard force attacked the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in May in an attempt to drive them away from the Hatgyi dam site. The villagers fled to refugee camps on the Thai border.”

Sai Khur Hseng, director of Sapwawa a Shan environmental network declared: “These conflicts have broken out despite the ceasefires. It is very clear that the Thanlwin (Salween) dams are fuelling war. If President U Thein Sein really wants peace, he should stop the dams immediately,”

The Myanmar government plans to sell electricity produced from the hydropower projects on the basis of agreements with five Chinese companies, one Thai company and three Myanmar companies. The ministry says Myanmar will get 15 percent of the electricity from the projects and the right to buy a further 25%.

These very serious and well- documented allegations have been raised in peace talks with the government.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

THE HYDROPOWER DEBATE: The World Bank versus the World Commission on Dams and the Oxford Study.

In January 2015 the World Bank and its financial arm the IFC-International Finance Corporation organised a conference in Yangon to promote hydropower as an engine for economic growth, and as a solution for dealing with the nation’s energy problems held in Naypidaw.

The event was clearly aimed at tapping the huge influx of foreign investor’s rich eager to grab a stake in exploiting the nation’s rich natural resources.

Although heavily outnumbered by businessmen and bankers, a few ngos were allowed to raise serious challenges to the overwhelming pro-dam spirit of the conference. John Saw Bright a representative of Kesan –(the Karen environmental & social action network )made it clear to the conference , mega-dam projects like the controversial Myitsone dam have given dams a bad reputation in Myanmar.

A representative from Myanmar Peace Support similalrly observed “dams and hydropower do not have a beautiful name in Burma…”

THE WORLD BANK AND HYDROWER

At the Naypidaw conference in January 2015, the World Bank Group tried to counter the negative image of large-scale dams, with the simple mantra of “sustainable hydropower ““a slogan that has come to permeate all international discourse on dams.

Kate Lazarus from the IFC the financial arm of the World Bank commented, “a sustainable hydropower sector will help mitigate environmental and social risks, while realizing Myanmar’s huge energy potential, contributing to economic growth and shared prosperity.”(The Nation newspaper in Thailand)

Karin Finkelston, IFC’s vice president for global partnerships argued that “electricity is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving living standards for Myanmar’s people and hydropower is an important part of Myanmar’s energy future – but it has to be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.”

But all this begs the question of what is sustainable and does mitigation work? The World Bank and the IFC neglect to define the limits of sustainability. The test of unsustainability and the grounds for rejecting a dam-project cannot be found anywhere in their literature. It has also never been clarified by the Mekong River Commission.

Rhetoric and assurances do not guarantee that millions of people living on Burma’s great rivers, and their fisheries, farm crops, and their livelihoods, can be adequately protected from destruction, which normally follows in the wake of mega-dam operations.

In fact here the work of fisheries experts and scientists clearly demonstrates that World Bank policy runs counter to the conclusions of recent scientific reports including the World Commission on Dams and subsequent studies.

The most comprehensive study of hydropower dam impacts around the world concluded that most mega-projects had unleashed many problems and that the losses suffered usually outweighed the benefits.

The World Commission on Dams (2000) concluded ´Decentralised, small-scale options (micro hydro, home-scale solar electric systems, and wind and biomass system) based on local renewable sources offer an important near-term, and possibly long-term, potential particularly in rural areas far away from centralised supply networks.”

Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM), a civil society group, pointed out that most of the population in Burma lives in remote and off-grid areas. If the government and the World Bank Group genuinely aim to bring electricity to the local population, decentralized off-grid solutions are the best option, not large-scale hydropower dams for export.

International Rivers ngo view sustainable hydropower as a formula not for examining all energy options and defining criteria for stopping  a deeply flawed dam from being built, but rather a recipe for building ” better nicer dams” based on unproved technologies of mitigation.

Pai Deetes of International Rivers blogged “It is clear that the myth of “sustainable hydropower”, as it is being sold by the World Bank will simply not be accepted in Burma.

Just recently an Oxford University research study corroborated these conclusions. “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams,” they said in a statement attached to the study, which was published on March 10: 2014 in the Energy Policy journal.

“The World Bank‘s claim that hydropower is “clean affordable, and reliable” is clearly contradicted by this study.

Bent Flyvbjerg, principal investigator for the Oxford University dam study, says dams “are not carbon neutral, and they’re not greenhouse neutral”. The vast quantities of concrete required to construct leave an enormous carbon footprint, he says.

Furthermore flooded vegetation under the reservoirs produces methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, he says.

Co-author Bent Flyvbjerg, the founding chair of Major Programme Management at the school, said the findings against mega dams were so conclusive that only “fools” or “liars” would advocate for them.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

CONCLUSION

Before the government and civil society consider following the World Bank neo-liberal model of development they should also heed the latest revelations from a global media investigation.

“Dams, power plants and other projects sponsored by the World Bank have pushed millions of people out of their homes or off their lands or threatened their livelihoods” the investigation found

The UK Guardian, the Huffington Post and other media, are currently    publishing a series of these investigation reports from the ICIJ (International Centre of Investigative journalism).

The ICIJ report concluded “The World Bank regularly fails to enforce its own rules protecting people in the path of the projects it bankrolls, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.”

Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people constantly subject to military harassment, and enforced resettlement are the ethnic peoples of the Salween River.

If the Myanmar government is serious about bringing peace to the ethnic regions and ending civil war in the country, they have to think again about imposing mega-projects on the ethnic states without providing them any benefits or compensation.

Building or not building dams is about far more than foreign investment, selling energy to neighbouring countries and protecting the environment. It is intimately connected with a more equitable sharing of political power and natural resources between the central government and its impoverished ethnic regions.

This article was originally published in the May 14th issue of MIZZIMA Weekly. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with full permission from its author.

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