Women have been underrepresented in formal roles throughout the ongoing peace process. In the 2015 negotiations leading up to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, only 5 percent of negotiators were women. Though women’s participation was higher in the multiple rounds of the 21st Century Panglong Conference (Union Peace Conference)—fluctuating from 13 percent of the delegates in August 2016 to 17 percent in May 2017, 22 percent in July 2018, and 17 percent in August 2020, according to the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process—it has not yet reached the 30 percent target the conflict parties committed to in 2016.
Women’s groups have been viewed as honest brokers, have built public support for the extended talks, and have—at great risk—led local campaigns to address underlying causes of the conflict. They were instrumental in launching and participating in a series of civil society peace forums to convey civil society priorities in the official process.
Since Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, various armed ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy from the government have fought the world’s longest-running civil war. Fighting has killed tens of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. In more recent years in Rakhine state, there has been particularly high rates of forced migration, armed violence, and persecution (due to multiple conflicts including sectarian violence between the Buddhist community and the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority). Across Myanmar, women and girls from ethnic and religious minorities have suffered a range of abuses by both the military and armed groups, including sexual violence, abductions, forced labor, and trafficking. In 2018, the United Nations listed Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, in its annual list of parties who have committed sexual violence in armed conflict.
A patchwork of bilateral state-level cease-fires throughout the 1990s did little to end the violence, but, in an important step forward in the ongoing peace process, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was signed in October 2015 between the government and eight of the then sixteen armed ethnic groups involved in the four-year negotiations (in 2018, an additional two groups signed on to the agreement). Historic elections in November 2015 resulted in a decisive victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, ushering in a new era of civilian government after nearly fifty years of military rule. The NLD-led government declared the peace process a priority and in August 2016 hosted the first 21st Century Panglong Conference (analogous to the Union Peace Conference convened by the former government) with broad representation, including seventeen of Myanmar’s twenty largest ethnic groups. There have been four Panglong Conferences in total (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020) with slow progress to advance the formal political dialogue agreed within the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Increased military and armed group attacks have eroded trust, resulted in massive displacement and abuses against civilians, and contributed to delays in follow-on negotiations.
Myanmar women have fought in armed groups, campaigned for peace, faced imprisonment for opposition politics, and survived conflict-related sexual violence and abuse over the course of Myanmar’s conflict. Yet they have remained underrepresented in formal roles in the peace process: for the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, women represented only two of the fifty-two government negotiators and one of the sixteen negotiators representing ethnic armed organizations (5 percent). Notably, one woman—Naw Zipporah Sein—served from June 2015 as the lead negotiator of the cease-fire negotiation team of the armed ethnic groups, and one of the two co-facilitators for the talks—a type of insider mediator—was a woman (Ja Nan Lahtaw, Executive Director of the Nyein (Shalom) Foundation – one of Myanmar’s leading peace organizations). The formal ceasefire implementation mechanism (the Joint Monitoring Committee) has also suffered from sluggish performance and does not have sufficient gender balance in its Union- and State level offices. Despite a 2016 commitment by the conflict parties that women would represent 30 percent of participants, their representation remains low. In the ongoing political dialogue process, women’s representation fluctuated from 8 percent of the approximately 700 delegates in January 2016 to 13 percent of the 663 delegates in August 2016 to 17 percent of the 910 participants in May 2017 to 22 percent of the 1,112 delegates in July 2018 to 17 percent of the 285 participants in August 2020. Notably, two of the three co-facilitators of the formal political dialogue are women—Ja Nan Lahtaw and Chin Chin. Beyond the formal peace process, Burmese women have led mass action campaigns to address the root causes of the conflict, built public support for the process, served as honest brokers in negotiations, and documented human rights violations to promote the rule of law.
Myanmar women have fought in armed groups, campaigned for peace, faced imprisonment for opposition politics, and survived conflict-related sexual violence and abuse over the course of Myanmar’s conflict.
Act as honest brokers. Women served as experts in the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement; they were selected because they were seen as “impartial, trusted by all groups, and had deep knowledge of the technicalities of cease-fire accords and implementation practices.” They also serve as co-facilitators—a type of insider mediator—in both the ceasefire negotiations and the following political dialogue process; Ja Nan Lahtaw reflected that her male co-facilitators would ask her to handle tense situations because “as a woman I can say things that are perceived as less threatening.”
Lobby informally. Women have acted as informal observers and back-channel communicators, serving as intermediaries with civil society groups. Women have also been involved in “tea-break advocacy”; when they were unable to secure a formal place at the table, women lobbied male delegates while serving them tea during recesses. During these informal lobbying talks, women have reportedly brought up critical issues affecting ethnic minorities, including land rights, native-tongue education, community security, and forced displacement.
Document human rights violations. To promote rule of law as part of Myanmar’s democratic transition, women’s groups have documented human rights violations perpetrated by the military and armed ethnic groups and have sought to publicize their findings to increase awareness and accountability (contributing to the UN’s 2018 listing of Myanmar’s military for crimes of sexual violence in armed conflict).
Lead mass action campaigns. At the grassroots level, women have led campaigns to address issues at the heart of the conflict, including land rights and equitable sharing of natural resources, as well as issues critical to society’s recovery, such as education and health care. They have done so at enormous risk, and many have been detained and arrested because of their leadership.
Speak across divides. Representatives of ethnic-minority women’s organizations have been able to form alliances to speak directly with representatives of armed ethnic groups. May Sabe Phyu, a prominent peace activist, said women are able to broker trust across divides based on common goals: “We want to participate in the peace processes not because we want to get power or position. . . . We want our next generation to live in a conflict-free society.”
“Peace in Burma needs the efforts of Women. It needs our strength and our power to care and our point of view. Peace making that is based only on short term rewards and economic development will bring only more conflict and violence.”
— Naw Zipporah Sein, former vice president of the Karen National Union