Generally speaking, women have not exactly been conspicuous among the leaders of the ethnic minorities that are at odds with the Burmese central government. But that may be changing.
In late January, a group representing the Karen, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Burma, issued a statement calling for women to be given a bigger role in the peace talks between Karen rebels and the government. "Our concerns must be brought to the negotiating table, and the abuses we have suffered must be redressed and prevented once and for all," Naw Zipporah Sein, who is the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), told me on the phone. She was speaking from a town on the Thai border. (The photo above shows a Karen girl in a refugee camp in Thailand.)
Before she was elected to that post in 2008 she served the head of the Karen Women Organization (KWO). It was under her leadership that the KWO published a widely noted 2004 report entitled "Shattering Silences," which documented 125 cases of the systematized rape and sexual abuse of women allegedly committed by Burmese military troops in Karen State over a twenty-year period. Today, despite her unprecedented leadership position in the KNU, Zipporah Sein told me that she's still unhappy with the status of Karen women. To the injury of maltreatment on the battlefield by government troops comes the insult of inadequate representation in the ruling circles of the rebel leadership.
The KNU, one of the most powerful rebel groups in Burma, has been fighting for ethnic autonomy since 1948. The government recently announced that it had concluded a cease-fire deal with them. A few days ago, however, it was none other than Zipporah Sein who called that agreement into question. The New York Times quoted her as saying that "[w]e still need to discuss the conditions."
Efforts to stop the fighting drag on. As the latest in a series of fragile ceasefire deals, the Mon ethnic group, which operates along the Thai-Burma border, announced last Wednesday that it reached "a preliminary ceasefire agreement" with Burma's pseudo-civilian government.
Similar agreements have been struck recently between the government and other ethnic rebel armies, including the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army, and at least seven other armed groups. The one major exception is the continuing war between the Kachin and government troops.
Unfortunately, the participation of ethnic women in these conflict resolution processes is disturbingly low. It is a tragedy that the people who have suffered the most from these conflicts are those who seem to have the least say in the process of their "resolution."
At least a dozen reports over the past decade -- many of them produced by the women's groups associated with the ethnic minorities -- have accused the Burmese military regime of systematically allowing government troops to commit rape with impunity in order to terrorize and subjugate the ethnic populations.
Since March 2010, when the current president Thein Sein took office in Burma, the Women's League of Burma, which brings together representatives of the major ethnic women organizations, has documented 81 rape cases in Shan and Kachin States. The League repeated its allegations in a letter it sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November, just before she made her historic visit to Burma.
According to a report by the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT), some women were gang-raped by Burmese military troops in front of their families as the military regime waged harsh offensives against Kachin rebels starting in 2010. According to Shirley Seng, the KWAT spokeswoman, although the Kachin rebels and the Burmese government are holding talks, the abuse of women goes on. "Since 2010, large numbers of Burmese troops have entered the Kachin villages," Ms. Seng told me. "Wherever they are stationed, they abuse our women and girls."
UN Security Council resolutions have specifically called for women to be involved in the peace process because that means that talks will address the issues that directly affect women.
On Sunday, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, ended a fact-finding visit in the country by calling on the Burmese government to acknowledge its past human rights violations -- and those committed against women in particular. The government, he said, will have to acknowledge its responsibility for the "violations that people have suffered" in order to "ensure national reconciliation and to prevent future violations from occurring."
Considering what they've gone through, it seems only right that women should not only have the chance to shape the conflict resolution process but also the nation-building effort that is yet to come -- assuming that all goes well, of course.