The military coup in Myanmar on February 1st raises two questions: What impact will it have on the ongoing peace processes and what impact will the reintroduction of the military state have on women’s participation in the peace process? Several decades of conflicts in Myanmar since the country’s independence had finally achieved a breakthrough in 2011. With the launch of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) process, ten armed ethnic organizations became signatories to NCAs through several bilateral and union-level meetings. However, it was not inclusive and did not end the conflict as most of the powerful armed groups in the north of the country remain non-signatories. However, the signing of the NCA by half of the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) was an important step towards creating sustainable peace in Myanmar.
The EAO’s reactions to the recent coup have varied. In the same week after the military coup (Tatmadaw), the ten signatories to the NCA issued a joint statement affirming their position to abide by the NCA and continue to work with the military government on the peace process in their respective areas. Following this, the second meeting of NCA signatories on February 20 issued another statement in which they reaffirmed their solidarity with the people of Myanmar. Interestingly, they have declared their non-cooperation with the current Military Administrative Council. Earlier in the day, two NCA signatories, the Karen National Union (KNU) of eastern Myanmar and the Shan State Restoration Council (RCSS) of northern Myanmar, also made individual statements condemning and calling for the coup Release of political leaders. The RCSS insisted on continuing peace talks with the imprisoned government. Among the non-signatories, while the general of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) posted on his Facebook that they stand with the Myanmar public; The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the most prominent armed groups in northern Myanmar, only issued a statement on February 17 highlighting the current challenges and calling for the avoidance of violent reactions to civilians who are protesting peacefully.
On February 8, Military Major General Min Aung Hlaing vowed to promote the peace process through the NCA. He reformed the Tatmadaw Peace Negotiating Committee after taking power, which now includes seven lieutenant generals (the pre-coup formed five lieutenants). The EAOs, while holding back from interfering in the military’s response, support the current public movements against the military coup. However, it is unclear how the post-coup military-led peace process plans to continue and involve various stakeholders in the inclusive peace talks.
Since the NCA was signed in 2015, the peace process in Myanmar has been conducted through formal and informal channels. In 2016, the NLD government hosted the Union Peace Conference known as May 21st Century Panglong Conference to develop the peace dialogue after taking office. The conference expanded Tatmadaw and Government Focuses to include all EAOs and civil society organizations (CSOs). After two annual Panglong conferences, 51 principles of a Union peace agreement were agreed in 2018 with the signatories of the NCA. While the discussion of federalism and security reform in the series of annual conferences was less progressive, CSOs were included in the conference. Because of this platform, the conference became an important channel for local women’s organizations and activists to express their needs.
There are three specific concerns about the NCA if it continues under the coup regime, particularly about its impact on women’s participation in the process. First, the military regime will continue a military-led peace process that is likely to hinder the meaningful participation of women in the formal peace process. Strengthening gender equality legislation, equal access to economic opportunities, and violence against women have been challenges during Myanmar’s democratic transition. In the same year that the NCA was signed, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2242 on Peace and Security for Women. This resolution called on Member States to ensure greater representation and meaningful participation of women in peace processes. In Myanmar, under the NLD government, formal women’s representation in the peace negotiation process remained below its own 30% target. But it has improved: in 2015 the participation of women in the formal peace process was 5%; In 2016 it was 13 percent; 17 percent in May 2017; 22 percent in July 2018; and 17 percent in August 2020. It is unknown if the military-led peace process will keep the channels open for women’s inclusion and keep the growing number of women at the table.
Will the regime allow those at the table to participate meaningfully even if the military maintains the current representation of women? In other words, are the voices of the women in the table heard or properly integrated into the peace process? For example, 13 women’s organizations announced their resignation from the Technical Working Group on Women’s Participation and refused to provide technical assistance to the military until the civil government resumes office. The departure of key actors like these organizations from the process increases the risk that the military-led peace process will lead to few gender-specific inclusions and outcomes.
This leads to the second concern: the continuing need to protect the populations of conflict-affected states from sexual and gender-based violence. As with many other conflicts affecting states around the world, the risk that women and girls will experience various forms of violence in Myanmar’s conflict is high. The UN Human Rights Council reported widespread sexual and gender-based violence in northern Myanmar (Kachin and North Shan) and in Rakhine states. These crimes were a continuum of local and state practices related to gender inequality, gender abuse, and gender discrimination. In highly militarized areas, restricted mobility, long-term displacement into temporary accommodation and the presence of several armed groups increase the daily risk of violence against women and girls in these conflict areas. Even before the coup, it is often unknown whether the agreement is in place, although Clause 9 (m) of the NCA states that “any form of sexual assault against women, including sexual harassment, sexual assault or violence, rape and sexual slavery, will be avoided “strictly adhered to by individual parties. Given its history of sex and gender crimes, the military is less likely to stay true to Clause 9 (m) and there are fewer opportunities to record these crimes as commissioned, as the internet and phone lines that restrict access to crime reporting and support services will continue to be interrupted.
Finally, despite the existence of the NCA, several factors are already hampering the provision of humanitarian aid to the conflict-affected populations in Myanmar. In recent years, under the NLD government, there has been a gradual increase in Travel Authorizations (TAs) for accessing Internally Displaced Person (IDP) websites. However, regular access was limited and sporadic, especially in rural areas. These sections of the population could not count on getting help on a regular basis. In Kachin state, access to aid and livelihoods for internally displaced persons, particularly in areas controlled by armed non-state actors, has been challenging due to the ongoing conflict with Tatmadaw and restrictions on movement. In North Shan, COVID-19-related restrictions on movement and intermittent armed clashes in the region have continued to limit the ability of local actors and international organizations to provide comprehensive humanitarian assistance. In the northern part of Rakhine, prior to the coup and COVID-19, movement restrictions have been in place since 2017 in response to the conflict. In one of the poorest regions, highly vulnerable civilians live without access to essential services, livelihoods, formal education and health care.
Not surprisingly, these challenges will increase under the military regime. Since the military came to power, access to information has been restricted by temporarily blocking internet and phone services. The international community reacted quickly to the coup in Myanmar with a variety of measures. Among other things, the diversion of aid from government channels to local civil society organizations ensures the continuation of humanitarian aid for the population affected by conflict. However, the limited capacity of civil society organizations and the restrictions on the movement and provision of services in these regions remain obstacles to their work. How will affected populations safely monitor the human rights violations committed by armed parties in this situation, especially when the military is in power?
The ability of the military to lead an inclusive peace process, to ensure meaningful representation of women in the peace process and to protect women and girls from all forms of violence is diminishing before our eyes. It is of paramount importance that the international community work together to find ways to support local civil society organizations, including women’s organizations. Priorities should be set to provide the latter with technical (including digital and communication technology) and financial resources to safely monitor human rights violations by armed parties and to develop strategies to reduce the risks women and girls face from experiencing all forms of Violence and ensuring continued access to services for those living in rural and conflict-affected areas.
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