Women who fled conflict and oppression in military-ruled Burma have become a potent political force during their lives in exile, says a leading women's rights activist from the South-east Asian country's Shan ethnic minority.Nothing confirms this more than the fact that the Women's League of Burma (WLB), a network of 13 women's groups in exile based in this northern Thai city, marked its 10th anniversary in December 2009. “Women's participation is a must for any kind of peace and reconciliation in Burma,” declares Hseng Noung, one of the founder members of the league.
“We have worked to create a political space and a democratic space for the voices and views of women from many ethnic groups to be heard in order to shape a better future for our country,” adds the 48-year-old activist, who left her country in 1983 after some years with a separatist rebel group in Shan State, in north-eastern Burma.
Hseng Noung, who was WLB general secretary, is also a representative of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), which is known for its publication of a numbing exposure of rape being used as a weapon of war by the Burmese military. The shocking disclosures in the 2002 publication ‘License to Rape' triggered condemnation by the international community, including the U.S. government and the United Nations.
IPS interviewed Hseng Noung on the eve of her departure to New York to participate in a special tribunal examining the Burmese regime's use of rape and violence against women in its military assaults on the country's ethnic minorities.
Q: Ten years ago when you set up the Women's League of Burma, what kind of space was there for exiled women from Burma to shape your country's political agenda?
A: We didn't see so much of women's participation among the exile groups. And even when there was, there was little recognition of women's contribution. There were women's groups at the time that were active and had participated in the country's affairs as they had done inside, like student activists. So we felt it would be better if we get together and create an organisation to create more space for us, and then to enlarge that space.
Q: When the WLB came into existence, was it seen as a groundbreaking moment?
A: Yes. It was unique for a country with the kind of historical background like Burma. We felt the need for collective ideas and collective action for women to participate in political change in Burma, social change, and to secure gender equality. Advocacy was also important for us because working towards women's development was community development.
Q: Now, 10 years after your organisation was established, do you have reasons to celebrate? Have you made an impact?
A: Of course. We see more women participating in our activities and demonstrating new and better skills to deal with many political issues. One example was the participation of women when there were discussions to draft Burma's new constitution. With their unique background from different ethnic areas, women contributed towards the discussion on what is best for national affairs and state affairs.
Our members come from areas where there is civil war, conflict, where issues like refugees and human rights violations of different forms under the regime have to be faced. The space we created through the Women's League of Burma made it possible to bring these diverse issues and talk about them. This would not be possible inside the country.
Q: The conflicts that you mention reveal what a deeply divided country Burma is along ethnic lines. There are officially over 130 ethnic groups and creating unity among them has been a historical challenge. Was the objective of your organisation to bridge these ethnic divides?
A: It is very clear that we want to build trust between us and we can do so by working together. We know it is so important for peace in Burma, for reconciliation in Burma. For that we must understand each other after many years of civil war and conflict and the regime's propaganda to divide and rule and carry out actions against us, their own people.
Q: Has it easy to build such trust? After all, you have among your members women from the majority Burman community and they have been responsible – or at least the Burmese army – for targeting ethnic minorities, of which you are one.
A: Nothing like this is easy. Because we know, having been under the regime, that we have lot of experiences to share as a way of building understanding so we can work together to go forward to build a peaceful society. The women talk the same language, that we want peace. But what kind of peace? Not just the absence of war. We want peace that offers better opportunities for all ethnic groups, for different people and different genders.
Q: Do you have similar organisations like yours inside Burma, working with the same objectives?
Q: How have men in the exile community accepted this shift in the gender balance with your organisation taking such an important step to shape the political agenda and influence political discussions?
A: Some men have welcomed our contribution. But there are others who have not given positive comments and even made fun of us. They expect us only to concentrate on select issues like human trafficking, health or HIV issues, because they see these as women's issues. Sometimes they dismissed or overlooked what women's groups were doing such as our three main areas of activity: peacebuilding and reconciliation programme, the violence against women programme and the women's political empowerment programme. That is why we call our movement a “struggle within a struggle.”
We have also proved ourselves by making people in the international community aware of the problems in Burma through our international networks. Before this people didn't know much about what the military regime was doing, using sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war. But we changed that view through the documentation work done by our member organisations, producing reports to expose these human rights violations. This helped to counter the propaganda of the regime.
Q: Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma's democracy icon. How has her importance influenced your organisation?
A: She is an inspiration to everybody. She didn't know that we were forming the Women's League of Burma. I am sure she will be proud of us. And we will support her.
Q: Do you think the Burmese regime will be able to handle organisations like yours?
A: They will have to handle it sooner or later. But I know – or heard – from some people, and not directly, that the regime has got some FM radio stations inside the country to denounce groups it does not like, and the Women's League of Burma has also been mentioned.