In celebrating this year’s International Women’s Day, ethnic women’s organizations, including Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), issued reports and statements calling for an end to offensives in ethnic areas and the Myanmar military’s impunity and widespread violence, including gender-based violence, as an essential step towards realization of gender equality.
To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, KWO produced a report highlighting the resilience of Karen women village chiefs who served during the decades-long civil war before the 2012 ceasefire between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar government. The report describes their courage and strength in their leadership roles, despite the serious human rights violations that they experienced or witnessed during the civil war and as village chiefs including: crucifixion, rape, torture, burning alive, slave labor and extrajudicial killings of friends, family, and relatives, and used as human shields and minesweepers at the hands of the Myanmar military. Many of these violations continue today, perpetrated by the same institution, most recently in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States.
In the face of intimidation and threats, women village chiefs regularly demonstrated strong negotiation and management, offered solutions and established secure relationships with different armed groups and villagers. Some women served up to 37 years as a village chief during the world’s longest running civil war, showing remarkable strength and resilience in the face of decades of immense adversity, making many sacrifices and overcoming their own fears to protect and uphold the rights of their communities. Following the 2012 ceasefire, men have come back to assume the role of village chiefs, with only seven of the 104 women village chiefs interviewed by KWO continuing their positions as chiefs. According to KWO, “Communities’ tendency to be more accepting of male leadership has compromised the efforts of women who want to continue to lead, but also want to respect the interests of their community.”
Transforming patriarchal cultural norms and dismantling its policies, systems and practices that block gender equality and advancement of women’s rights is essential and vital for women to be heard and lead their community as well as to serve in government and act as key drivers of peace. For this, the Myanmar government must fulfil its international obligations, and comply with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and other related UN resolutions. There can be no sustainable peace or democracy without the full involvement of women, particularly the victims and survivors of the conflicts and/or women from conflict-affected ethnic communities who can bring their experiences, knowledge and skills to the table. This is an invaluable component of addressing the immense challenges facing their communities as well as the country as a whole, and to find transformative solutions for sustainable and durable peace.
Unfortunately, laws such as the Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Bill, which is currently awaiting submission to the Parliament for debate, have severely lacked transparency and consultation with women across the country, but significantly, and in particular, with the women from conflict-affected areas. Establishing a comprehensive legal framework to address sexual-violence in conflict-affected areas must include these women. In addition, while the government has developed a Nation Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women containing lofty and aspirational language related to eliminating gender-based violence, the Myanmar military’s ongoing campaign of sexual violence against ethnic women requires action. Thus, it is disheartening to see that Myanmar is continuing to fail its international obligations to protect women in armed conflict situations or to end the Myanmar military’s decades-long use of rape as a tactic of war against ethnic communities as found in the report by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. More disappointingly the Joint Communique that the Myanmar government and the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict signed in December 2018 has not been brought to women from the conflict affected areas for consultation. Meanwhile the ongoing sexual and gender-based violence committed by the Myanmar military in ethnic areas poses a critical question on the government’s commitment in signing such Joint Communique with the UN’s SRSG’s office in the first place.
Considering the failures of the Myanmar government to address these critical issues, it is not surprising that the women, especially from conflict-affected ethnic communities, remain at the forefront of joining the ongoing domestic and international joint movement calling for international criminal justice and accountability to hold the Myanmar military to account. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) has released a report compiling recent cases of the Myanmar military’s torture, killing and shelling of civilian targets in Kutkai Township, northern Shan State. Cases documented by KWAT represent only a very small fraction of crimes being committed by the Myanmar military, especially due to ongoing restrictions imposed in accessing conflict-affected areas such as Rakhine, Chin and Shan States. Given the well documented ongoing impunity under the Myanmar military’s justice system, KWAT asserted in their report that they “beg to differ” to a claims made by State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, that “If war crimes have been committed by members of Myanmar’s Defense Services, they will be prosecuted through our military justice system, in accordance with Myanmar’s Constitution” – a statement given in front of the world during the International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings in December 2019. Clearly and sadly, justice is nowhere to be seen in Myanmar.
There is an urgent need in Myanmar to create a safe space for the voices of these women to be heard and the perpetrators of heinous crimes to be held accountable. This must include, at the very least, international criminal accountability, a public apology and redress for victims and survivors. For this, the international community must make concerted efforts to support these women who are seeking justice and accountability for the victims and survivors that have suffered unspeakable crimes, who now dare to speak the truth and stand against the systemic violence and oppression, and are taking to the frontlines to defend their rights and the rights of their communities. Collectively, we must work towards a Myanmar that puts gender equality at the center of policy, peace and federal democratic governance by first and foremost, tackling the major hindrance towards ending violence and achieving justice and equality. It is imperative that the Myanmar military and its well-established institution as well as individual perpetrators of sexual violence and other grave international crimes are held to account. Only then, can we see an end to the impunity that has too long been enjoyed by the Myanmar military.
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 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Chin Human Rights Organization
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland
By Karen Women’s Organization
By Kunhing Villagers
By Myanmar Mining Watch Network
By Karen Women’s Organization
By Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”