Myanmar’s government and ethnic armed groups should ensure that women meaningfully participate in efforts to end the country’s longstanding armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Thursday. The government should also make women’s rights a priority as Myanmar continues its political transition. In late August 2016, the National League for Democracy-led government that was elected in November 2015, and various armed groups will meet at the “Panglong 21st Century Peace Conference” to begin talks.
Women make up just over half of the population in Myanmar, but have been noticeably absent from nearly four years of peace negotiations to end armed conflict in the country. Beyond women holding few, if any, senior positions in the parties involved in these negotiations, many women’s groups report being treated with disdain or as “spoilers” for pressing for the inclusion of women’s rights.
The 18-page report, ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’: Women’s Participation in Myanmar’s Peace Negotiations and Political Transition, examines women’s participation in peace efforts in Myanmar and the devastating impacts of the country’s wars on women. Women have been almost entirely absent from nearly four years of peace negotiations to end the fighting in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the National League for Democracy, and a few other women hold leadership positions in groups involved in these negotiations, but there have been only 10 women among 195 senior delegates in eight major peace efforts since 2012.
“Women in Myanmar are entitled to a meaningful and comprehensive role in determining their country’s future,” said Sarah Taylor, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Myanmar’s women have long endured abuses but have worked hard to advance human rights. Their voices should now be front and center.”
Myanmar has endured a number of prolonged internal armed conflicts since its independence in 1948, with three of the country’s seven ethnic-minority states facing ongoing fighting or tensions. In recent years the fighting in several parts of the country has worsened, with escalating violence in Kachin and Shan States resulting in countless civilian deaths and injuries, and the protracted displacement of over 200,000 people.
In May 2016, Human Rights Watch spoke with more than 25 Burmese women’s rights activists, armed group representatives, ceasefire monitors, and foreign diplomats. Women’s groups reported that government officials and leaders of non-state armed groups have long treated women with disdain or as “spoilers” when they pressed for the inclusion of women’s rights in talks. One leading women’s rights activist said “tea break advocacy”– during breaks in meetings – has often been the only space for women to influence delegates in ongoing negotiations.
Women in Myanmar need a greater role in the peace process not only because they suffer many of the consequences of the conflicts, but also because their participation can help ensure that a full range of human rights concerns are addressed in any peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said. This is crucial for obtaining a long and durable peace.
According to the report, women in Myanmar have long been targeted for abuse during the country’s many internal armed conflicts. Sexual violence by the Tatmadaw, and to some extent ethnic armed groups, has been frequent. Persistent abuses against civilians, including sexual violence, have been facilitated by the lack of accountability for such crimes. Local and international human rights groups have reported numerous cases of alleged sexual violence that the military has refused to seriously investigate. The Ministry of Defence informed the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar that the military prosecuted 61 armed services personnel for rape between 2011 and 2015—but provided few details on convictions or punishments. Where investigations and prosecutions do occur, many proceedings take place in military courts that lack independence from the chain of command and are rarely, if ever, open to the public.
For example, in January 2015, the bodies of two ethnic Kachin teachers, Maran Lu Ra, 20, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, 21, were found in Shan State, where villagers and activists allege they were raped and then brutally murdered by Burmese army soldiers. Local activists, international nongovernmental organizations, and the United States government called on Myanmar to investigate the cases. In May 2016, the Tatmadaw made public statements saying that an investigation had taken place, but there has been no information about charges being brought against suspects or about any trial, let alone convictions.
In addition to being targeted for sexual violence and other abuses, women and girls have often been impacted by armed conflict in other specific and disproportionate ways. As the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, noted in 2016: ‘’Sexual violence has been exacerbated by conflict and displacement, notably in Kachin and northern Shan States, linked to the collapse of social protection mechanisms, the increased presence of armed actors, and military camps in proximity to civilian centers. … A rise in trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced marriage was noted, with 45 cases recorded early in 2015. Stateless women and those who lacked identity documents were at greatest risk, including while travelling on crowded boats and staying in smugglers’ camps.’’
The displacement of civilian populations during the fighting has had multiple distinct impacts on women and girls in Myanmar. Although data is scarce, the UN Population Fund notes that displacement has resulted in a lack of access to livelihoods for affected populations, forcing many of the men to seek work away from their families. ‘’Their prolonged absence has a profound effect on the safety and security of women and girls. … recent reports indicate that GBV [gender based violence], including sexual violence, are a constant fear and threat.’’
As Myanmar women’s rights organizations repeatedly highlight, justice for women and girls in Myanmar remains elusive, particularly with regard to violence related to armed conflict. There is no institutionalized complaint mechanism for victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, consistent with the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which the government signed in 2014. When Tatmadaw soldiers are involved in abuses against civilians, victims and their families must rely on the Tatmadaw to initiate proceedings against its soldiers. Despite allegations of more than 70 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the Burmese army over the past 4 years, few prosecutions have been publicly reported; in 2014 only two soldiers were known to have been convicted of rape.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in the Myanmar section of his 2015 report on conflict-related sexual violence, noted that “legal recourse needs to be available uniformly and systematically” and that special rapporteurs on Myanmar had called for the constitution to be amended so that security forces are subject to civilian oversight.
Burmese civilians have been victims of abuses during armed conflict since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups has surged on and off in recent years, and ceasefire agreements have unraveled.
In addition to including women as full partners in peace talks, the new government should abolish or revise laws enacted by the previous administration that curtail the rights of women and criminal laws that provide inadequate protection to women, Human Rights Watch said. There is no specific law criminalizing violence against women at home or sexual harassment in the workplace, nor does current law allow women to seek protection from the state, including restraining orders on violent men.
International human rights law and the principles contained in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace, and security oblige governments to take steps to remove discrimination against women in public life, and to respect their right to take part in public affairs. Such action should set the standard for the essential role of women in Myanmar in preventing and ending armed conflicts. This includes peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction.
“Myanmar’s government and military and ethnic armed groups should all commit to promoting respect for women’s rights,” Taylor said. “These parties can start at the upcoming Panglong Peace Conference by ensuring that women have a prominent place at the negotiating table.”