The Women's League of Burma (WLB), a coalition of 13 women's organizations representing Burma's main ethnic groups, called on Wednesday for the inclusion of women in the country's ongoing efforts to end decades of ethnic conflict.
“Women's participation at all levels of the peace process is needed to reflect the concerns and voices of the women and children who are particularly affected when conflicts occur,” said WLB General Secretary Tin Tin Nyo at a press conference in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
The press conference, held to announce plans to submit an open letter and a petition with more than 17,000 signatures to Burma's President Thein Sein, highlighted the continuing exclusion of women from ongoing talks between the government and ethnic armed groups.
The petition, which calls for wider popular participation in the peace process, was signed over the past three months by internally displaced people, refugees and migrant workers in the border areas of Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China.
Since last year, 10 ethnic armed groups have reached tentative ceasefire agreements with the government, but clashes between the Burmese armed forces and the Kachin Independence Army in northern Burma continue more than a year after the two sides started fighting last June.
The WLB noted that with the exception of Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the Karen National Union, there have been almost no women involved in any of these negotiations. So far, the group said, even Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, has played no direct role in the peace process.
Without more inclusive talks, lasting peace will likely remain elusive, the group said.
“The government should move from peace talks to a political dialogue,” said Tin Tin Nyo, noting that Suu Kyi has said that a political dialogue should involve more than just two people.
Thein Sein was not the only target of the WLB's appeal, however. The group said that its member organizations are also calling on their respective ethnic groups to broaden the peace process to include other participants.
The WLB said that collecting signatures from some of Burma's most marginalized citizens was difficult but symbolically important. In refugee camps, for instance, the group was not permitted to organize its petition campaign, and many who were asked to sign were reluctant to do so because of their uncertainty about the peace process.
However, the group said it felt it was essential to bring many of those most severely affected by years of conflict into the discussion.
“We are very worried about the increased numbers of refugees in the Kachin war-torn areas as well as the recent thousands of refugees who were displaced due to communal violence in Arakan State,” said Moon Nay Li, coordinator of the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand, one of the WLB's member groups.
“The lack of the government action and rule of law makes the threat to refugees worse,” she added.
The open letter calls on Thein Sein's government, the Burmese army, pro-democracy group, ethnic armed groups and political alliances in exile to collaborate towards achieving “genuine and long-lasting peace and reconciliation” in Burma.