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Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Women in Burma

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Embassy of Czech Republic
Washington, DC
May 25, 2012


Thank you, Deputy Chief of Mission Zajicek for your gracious introduction.

It is fitting that we gather here at the Embassy of the Czech Republic for this discussion on Burma. President Havel, whose beloved Czechoslovakia endured more than forty years of totalitarian rule, had great empathy for the people of Burma and for Aung San Suu Kyi whom he had nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a steadfast voice for Burma’s pro-democracy movement.

A week before he died, he urged the international community to encourage “the signs of cautious change” in Burma. “It is crucial,” he said, “that the international community adopt effective policies that encourage a meaningful results-oriented dialogue between Aung Date: 05/31/2012 Description: Ambassador Verveer © SAmSan Suu Kyi (Daw Suu) and the Burmese authorities.” Daw Suu, in learning of Havel’s death, spoke of a letter she had received from him it did not arrive until after his death. In it he told her, “After fifty years of totalitarian rule, the road to a pluralistic and democratic society will not be easy,” but he believed in new beginnings, and he offered Daw Suu his help.

We thank the Czech Republic for never forgetting its own struggle for freedom by continuing to promote democracy around the globe.

I just returned from Burma as well as from a visit to the women’s groups on the Thai-Burma border. It was a trip I undertook to put a spotlight on issues relating to women and girls, particularly at this time of possibility. We have no surety of where the road will lead but it is, nevertheless, a time of possibility for a better future for the people of Burma.

The United States has been responding to the positive steps taken in Burma since the recent elections with actions of our own to promote democratic progress and support for the Burmese people. And, as you know, some new measures were announced last week by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. We have no illusions about the problems that still need to be addressed in Burma particularly, the ongoing violence in the ethnic areas and the human rights violations perpetrated against women in those areas. None of us can see how all of this will turn out, but we believe that we must proceed in a thoughtful and responsible way to help the Burmese people chart a democratic, peaceful and more prosperous future.

President Havel founded Forum 2000, which I had the privilege to attend a few years ago. He always put a high premium on the efforts of civil society and the way citizens confront the challenges of their time – people building democracy from the ground up. They are the real agents of change. And that is certainly true in Burma as well.

In Burma, I met with Daw Suu who is such a symbol for democracy around the world and with citizens of all ages across all sectors of society --- from students to former prisoners, from people running small businesses and health clinics to those teaching civic lessons to the next generation. I traveled from Rangoon, to Nay Pyi Taw to the Shan state. My meeting with Daw Suu focused on a range of topics form empowerment to development and from the release of political prisoners to the responsibilities of elected officials, from rule of law to transparency.

Development is a key challenge. While there is a dearth of accurate data on Burma’s development status, it is clear that women (as well as men) have been deprived of educational opportunities compared to its once glorious past as a center of learning. There is a great need to build capacity in the people, and this was mentioned over and over wherever we went. The frequent closings of universities over the past several decades and the small budgets allocated to education have taken a toll. In our meeting with the Deputy Education Minister, it was clear that there was at once an awareness of a tremendous gap to be closed, yet there are few additional resources in the budget for curriculum reform, teacher training and secondary and higher education.

Women in Burma Embracing Change and Advancing Political and Social Progress

The older generation of Burmese women with whom we met – most either retired civil servants or professionals – appeared well educated and knowledgeable of Burmese society. Most spoke fluent English and had established civil society organizations. They were still very engaged in providing critical health, education, and other services to compensate for the severe lack of government services. They had been able to operate within limited space and were tolerated, to a certain extent, by the former military regime. Although very realistic, they uniformly expressed a cautious sense of hopefulness about the future.

The younger generation appeared most optimistic and energized about Burma’s future. Many of the young women have started or are participating in NGOs advocating civic activism and social entrepreneurship. They were impressive in their independent thinking and can-do spirit. They’ve become increasingly empowered to embrace their rights, whether in the home, the workplace, in community and political activities or at the university. As a crucial part of the Burmese workforce, they will need guidance and support to become effective advocates for and the future leaders of Burma’s social and economic transformation.

Although not all the women I met were affiliated with the National League for Democracy party, they all revered Aung San Suu Kyi. However, they also recognized the need for stories of other women leaders to become better known – the ordinary women who had done extraordinary things. One young woman even allowed that there were no role models for women in the rural areas. This younger generation is eager to contribute and to connect with the world. They are propelled by their belief in a new and better future and they want to do their part.

While Burma has the experienced older generation to anchor society and the young generation to break new ground, the “missing middle” generation poses tremendous challenges to Burma’s transition. Most of the identified “missing middle” women leaders are either from the 1988 students’ generation or are former political prisoners. These courageous women have paid a severe price for their political activism in labor rights, land rights, HIV/AIDS, and democracy promotion. Many of them left the country during the most oppressive years and some have chosen to return. Many are taking advantage of the recent opening to test the progress by creating NGOs, building women’s network, supporting women workers to negotiate for better conditions and higher pay, being politically engaged and working to support women in the ethnic communities.

At the U.S. State Department, we are identifying avenues to engage all three generations of women by providing them with networking and capacity-building opportunities. The 2015 election is on many people’s minds since the by-election, and there is interest in trainings, exchanges and the sharing of best practices. Embassy Rangoon’s small grants programs have proven to be very effective in building grassroots civil society. Increasing Burmese women’s participation in International Visitors Leadership Programs, Fulbright

Scholarship and through other cross border opportunities will help to integrate the Burmese into the global community after decades of isolation. These small, yet catalyzing investments would provide high yield benefits for Burma’s future leaders.

Violence Against Women in Ethnic Areas

As we know, women continue to be victims of violence in the ethnic areas of conflict. In my past travels in the region, I have had the agonizing experience of meeting desperate and often very sick Burmese victims of trafficking to Malaysia or Thailand. The horrifying stories of women victims of rape in the ethnic areas, where rape is used as a tactic of the armed conflict, show the ongoing vulnerability of the ethnic women. As we gather here, women in Kachin state and other ethnic areas still face unspeakable threats as the conflicts persist. Women’s groups on the Thai-Burma border continue to document these cases. We cannot ignore the abuses.

Burma’s ongoing internal ethnic conflicts are a major source of instability, human rights violations and the displacement of people – particularly, women and children. We consistently heard about the need for national reconciliation and a lasting peace. According to the NGOs, the conflicts are continuing. In northern Shan state where a 22-year peace agreement was breached in 2011, I heard about ongoing incidents while I was there. The U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights Report that was released today includes a review of the use of excessive force and other abuses, like rape as a war tactic, in the internal conflicts.

Women and the Peace Process

Any prospect of sustainable peace will not be possible without the participation of the ethnic groups and the women. Many of the women’s groups raised the need for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), which links women to peace and security and recognizes the role they must play in peace negotiations and the need for violence against women to be addressed in any peace process.

Late last year, President Obama issued the first U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. His accompanying Executive Order urges the government from the Department of Defense to the Department of State, US AID and other agencies to insure that in our military, diplomatic and development efforts in areas of conflict and political transition, we support women as critical participants in resolving conflicts, in protecting them from sexual and gender-based violence, in ensuring equal access to relief and recovery and in promoting post conflict reconstruction. They are essential to the task of rebuilding their communities through economic development, education, governance, and more.

Women have been too often excluded from both the negotiations that lead to peace and the institutions that maintain it. Yet, from Northern Ireland to Liberia and many places in between, we have seen that when women are included, they are a powerful force for peace. It is their daily lived experiences that need to inform the process and need to be addressed in any eventual peace agreements. In Burma’s ethnic areas, issues like land rights, the military presence, the ethnic communities’ role in economic development projects, how justice will be rendered in cases of human rights violations against women – these issues and so many more will have to be addressed for any potential for peace and stability to be sustained. If women are silenced or marginalized, the prospects for a lasting peace and a better life will be subverted.

When I was in Shan state, I attended a meeting with the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (there were also some National League for Democracy members in attendance). It was inspiring (and somewhat confusing) to see them engage in the democratic process. The parliamentarians who were present, including the 27-year old Shan women who had gained her seat in the recent by-election, described a peace process to include some parliamentarians. And the parliament was hoping to begin the process by engaging in a fact finding mission to the ethnic regions. Whatever process is put in place to bring an end to the cease fires and peace agreements, women need to be included in the negotiations. It is in this critical area and in the full implementation of UNSCR 1325 that you and your NGOs can play an important role. The State Department will provide small grants to NGOs in Burma in support of women’s participation in efforts to implement UNSCR 1325.

Women’s Groups in the Thai-Burma Border Area

In addition to meetings inside Burma, we traveled to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to meet with the leading women’s ethnic groups with whom we have worked closely in recent years. The groups have played a critical role in advocating to the international community for human rights, democracy and freedom on behalf of the ethnic communities in Burma. Their access to the ethnic areas has uniquely positioned them to gather and distribute critical information to and from remote, but politically important regions of the country, as well as to provide training and skills development to the ethnic women. The women’s groups are the most knowledgeable and experienced in advocating for the ethnic minorities and have a continuing important role to play.

Most of the groups provide direct services to the women and children on the Thai-Burma border. They are concerned about a potential withdrawal of assistance to the border region with the changes that are occurring in Burma. It would be premature to do so as the services there continue to be critically needed.

As the international community considers the most effective ways to support the people of Burma, it must focus on empowerment of the people, women and men. As Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Development must be about individual empowerment” --- the ability of the people to let go of fear and to take action on behalf of themselves, their communities and their country. For too long, the Burmese people have been unable to realize their full potential; now we have an opportunity to help them through our development assistance. It must be about them, and it must be coordinated with other partners.

Burma’s democratic future is a work in progress. Today we have an historic opportunity to help the people of Burma to realize a better future. Everywhere I went, I saw people in Burma embracing the prospect for change, for freedom, for democracy, for opportunity. As President Havel reminded us, the road will not be easy but we must encourage the signs of cautious change in Burma.

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