Nang Kham Awn and Maggi Quadrini reflect on almost two decades of tireless activism and advocacy.
On December 9, 2018 the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), an umbrella organization comprised of 13-member groups, celebrated nineteen years of activism for women. Over 500 people joined the ceremony for the anniversary, which was held at Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon, to pay tribute to generations of reformers and to commemorate the events that happened since December 1999, when the second forum of the Women’s Organization of Burma was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The goal of this summit was to encourage a dialogue that would maintain the spirit of the Pang Long Agreement – an understanding reached in 1947 which sought to make Burma a Union of equal and independent states but was never implemented. The women in attendance at the summit further explored their ideas and views on how to overcome long-ingrained gender stereotypes they believed were holding the country back from progress. A platform was needed to give women of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds a voice. Thus, the Women’s League of Burma was established.
Women in Burma have been impacted by civil war that has plagued the country for over seventy years, where they have experienced conflict-related sexual violence including rape as well as torture and forced labor – despite the fact the Tatmadaw has denied ever committing such acts. They also face inherent social discrimination deeply rooted in power dynamics found in Burmese society that too often unfairly dismisses women. Reports by the WLB members over the last nineteen years highlight the agency of women and challenges faced on issues related to peace, human trafficking and land confiscation among others.
Against the backdrop of a deteriorating human rights situation, the WLB has continued to advocate for the voices of women in conflict. In a well-coordinated effort to increase visibility of the issues women were facing – including advocating for their participation in the national peace and reconciliation process, the WLB has consistently explored and shared news ideas with its current and former members through joint reports, community consultations and regular meetings and networking events with media and Government officials.
In a statement released to commemorate the journey of the WLB over the last nineteen years, calls were made for an end to the fighting in Burma. “Peace is not happening – the process is happening while conflict wages and threatens civilian livelihoods,” reads the statement. Member organizations are frustrated with attempts by the Government to facilitate peace while the Tatmadaw seeks to sow divisions through its divide and conquer strategy.
Thousands have been displaced in Burma’s ethnic states where women are not only victims in conflict – but left out of decision making processes where their insights are greatly needed. As observed in their statement, “if [the Government] really wants to solve the conflict and secure a peace process that is inclusive of a federal democracy, they need to involve everyone who is impacted.”
Inclusion for the WLB means participation in politics that does not discriminate on the basis of gender or ethnicity with all state and non-state actors working to facilitate change on the ground. It is imperative that community-based organizations are not overlooked as they are the representatives of victims suffering from the impacts of conflict.
As the WLB reflects on nineteen years of advocacy, the transition in Burma to a democracy has been slow and, in many cases, those leading have proved to be reluctant to change the moral discourse which suggests the current NLD-led Government is treading carefully in its reforms so as to not upset the long-held undisputed powers of the Tatmadaw. As conflict wages and disrupts the livelihoods of thousands of civilians, the NLD has been slow to condemn the actions of the military, instead choosing to make broad calls for unity amidst a stalled set of peace negotiations.
“Freedom of speech has suffered, reforms to the protection of women and children have been contested and the peace process is arguably just for show – without equal representation in these discussions there is a long way to go before it is taken seriously,” reads the statement.
The WLB has observed the current socio-political situation and expressed concern. The Constitution limits prospects for change as the Tatmadaw continues to control despite the transition to a quasi-civilian Government.
The WLB supports calls from civilians to have safe lives that are free from fear. Their statement endorses a future where every human has full security to live in a society where they are protected. The WLB believes in a vision of a democratic union of Burma premised on genuine peace, social and political justice and gender and ethnic equality. Moving forward, the organization and its members will continue its commitment to work for justice, equality and basic human rights for the greater good for society and justice for women.
Maggi Quadrini works in communications for non-profit on various projects along the Thai-Myanmar border focusing on gender equality with local groups including the Shan Women’s Action Network, the Karenni National Women’s Organization and the Karen Women’s Organization. Her work has been published in DVB, Asian Correspondent, Asia Times, Frontier Myanmar and the Diplomat.
Nang Kham Awn works with the Information and Documentation team at the Shan Women’s Action Network. She is interested in women’s issues, human rights and federal democracy in Burma.