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“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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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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Shwe Mann removal a blow to reform in Myanmar

Shwe Mann's removal represents a step backwards for Myanmar's reform process.

Shwe Mann’s purge represents a step backwards for Myanmar’s reform process.

Less than three months before the country’s highly anticipated parliamentary elections, an internal purge of Myanmar’s ruling party has cast doubts on the prospects of reforms in the Southeast Asian state.

On Wednesday evening, security forces surrounded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), preventing politicians from leaving. Not long after, it was announced that Shwe Mann, chairman of the military-backed USDP was stepping down. The Parliament speaker’s ouster has changed Myanmar’s political landscape ahead of November 8 and has thrown the future of the nascent democracy into uncertainty.

Challenging the status quo

Shwe Mann, who was the third highest ranking official in General Than Shwe’s junta, was expected by many to take over the presidency in this year’s election. His ties to the military and his reputation as a reformer with close connections to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made him the ideal compromise candidate for a country that is struggling to maintain the pace of political and economic reforms started following the end of military rule in 2011.

It was this image as a reformer that ultimately led to his downfall. Ye Htut, Myanmar’s information minister and President Thein Sein’s spokesman confirmed as much Sunday, saying that Shwe Mann was removed because he challenged the military’s hold on parliamentary power and forged ties with rival party leaders.

Throughout Thein Sein’s tenure, Shwe Mann repeatedly made public overtures to Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Many in Myanmar expected this year’s parliamentary elections to result in a unity government of the USDP and the NLD, with Shwe Mann as president. Both party leaders expressed a desire to alter the junta-backed 2008 constitution, which currently bars Suu Kyi from becoming president and reserves 25 percent of the parliament’s seats for the military.

Announcing his desire to partner with the opposition leader gained him popularity among the reform-minded Burmese public, but it did not endear him to the military elite. Former junta leader Than Shwe has reportedly changed his mind about the series of reforms he ordered five years ago and ultimately ordered Shwe Mann’s removal in order to re-consolidate the military’s hold on power.

Dim prospects for reform

The imagery of Wednesday evening’s intra-party coup certainly suggests that a return to the atmosphere of pre-reform Myanmar is afoot. Using the country’s security forces betrayed the involvement of the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, likely carrying the blessings of Than Shwe. Despite his large political ambition, it is doubtful that the encirclement of USDP headquarters by soldiers and military police was needed to remove Shwe Mann from power. Instead, the display of military force was symbolic, serving notice to any would-be political challengers and the Burmese public as a whole that the military is ultimately in control. The bloodless coup’s casualties were only political in nature, but the violent signals it sent will have reminded many of past military purges.  Aung San Suu Kyi may be free from house arrest, newspapers may have cautiously restarted their printing presses, but the junta has not yet given up the reins.

The political landscape leading up to this year’s elections has changed considerably following Shwe Mann’s removal. He was Thein Sein’s primary political rival and with Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined by constitutional provisions, the presidency is Thein Sein’s to lose. Whether or not he will take the opportunity is another matter. The former general has waffled in his plans regarding the presidency, alternately saying that poor health will force him to step down and suggesting that his decision depends on the “the country’s situation, the prevailing circumstances, and wishes of the people.” Thein Sein does not need to immediately decide on his political future, however. Even if he chooses to sit out November’s elections, Thein Sein can still be nominated for the presidency by parliament, according to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.

While Thein Sein’s presidential ambitions may be unclear, the prospects for liberal reform in Myanmar are unquestionably dim. Shwe Mann’s removal likely signals both a slowdown for political reform and crackdowns on Myanmar’s burgeoning civil society and free media.

Following his ouster, the government gagged media organizations linked to Shwe Mann. The Union Daily newspaper and the weekly Leader journal, both known as mouthpieces for Shwe Mann, were ordered to suspend operations by the Ministry of Information. In addition, Cherry FM, a radio station linked to Shwe Mann’s daughter-in-law, was taken off the air Friday.

Despite seemingly bleak prospects for Myanmar’s reform process, Shwe Mann’s removal could have unexpected consequences if the November elections remain free and fair. Shwe Mann represented reform within the country’s military establishment and offered a middle road between the NLD opposition and the hardliners in the USDP. Many Burmese that I have spoken with in recent years knew that Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances of ascending to the presidency were slim and viewed Shwe Mann as an acceptable alternative. That option is gone now.

By deposing Shwe Mann, the USDP might have pushed millions of moderate voters into the arms of their political opponents. However, that all depends on free and fair elections in November – an unlikely event following Wednesday’s intra-party coup.

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