Burma Link | June 29, 2016
Soe Soe Nwe is an ethnic Tavoyan woman who joined the Tavoyan Women’s Union (TWU) in 2001, inspired by her mother’s example of strong woman’s leadership in her family. Since February 2015, she has taken responsibility as the Join General-Secretary for Women’s League of Burma (WLB), and umbrella organisation of 13 member women’s groups that works for the advancement of the status of women towards a peaceful and just society in Burma. The WLB has been a strong advocate for ethnic women’s rights for nearly two decades, as well as repeatedly calling for an inclusive peace process and an end to Burma Army offensives and impunity. Soe Soe Nwe originally became interested in the advancement of women’s rights and status after witnessing her own mother struggling for the family as a single parent in an environment where men dominate decision making and roles of influence. She decided to change her own family first, explaining that change must come from family level; “We need to change things in the family, and then in the community, and then in the society, so that’s why I changed my family first.” In this interview, Soe Soe Nwe talks about the current conflict situation and prospects for peace, including the importance of all-inclusiveness and women’s participation in the peace process; status of women in Tavoyan and other ethnic societies in Burma; and how women are impacted by the dynamics of conflict and displacement. Soe Soe Nwe also encourages the international community to keep supporting ethnic civil society and displaced civilians along Burma’s borderlands.
Joining the movement: “I wanted to work for the women to promote their role in the community”
The WLB is an umbrella organization. We have a congress every two years and at the time each member organization needs to send a representative for the policy board and also for the secretary office, and then they have a selection for the secretary office. Originally my mother organisation is Tavoyan Women’s Union (TWU), but in the last congress [in 2015] I was selected to join the [the WLB] secretary.
I have been with the TWU since 2001. TWU is one of the founding members of the WLB. [I joined the TWU] because I am a woman, and I wanted to work for women to promote their role in the community. That’s why I joined the TWU and then after I started working there I started mobilizing the community, women from the community. Another reason why I joined a women’s organization is because of my mother; when I was young my father and my mother separated and then my mother had to take care of all the children and it was very difficult to survive, and that’s why I have been learning a lot of things from my mother. And then [I thought] if I joined a women’s organization I could work and encourage women more; not only my mom but also the whole society. That’s why I joined at the time. I have learned a lot of things from my mother, because the first time when my father and my mother separated I felt like we would lose energy. But it was not like that because my mom is very strong to fight in daily life so that’s why I feel I got the energy to work for women.
Now my father and my mother stay together and my father changed. I influenced my family to change. We need to change things in the family, and then in the community, and then in the society, so that’s why I changed my family first.
Challenges Tavoyan and other ethnic women face: “They [men] may be concerned that if women get in power they will lose their position”
Especially in our community the traditional culture is such that women are second standard in every way—politically, socially, economically, women don’t have equal rights, and also they have many limitations to join in the community, to participate, especially for politics. Men dominate, and women just take care of the family so that’s why we are working on the ground to mobilize the women. Also we are giving awareness to women and encouraging women to be empowered to participate in society. Because in Burmese culture it is very difficult for the women. Even though some men say that ‘oh, we already gave the same equal rights’ but it’s only words, and in reality it is very difficult. If we would like to say that we have equal rights; it is not only about giving space for equality but also we need to recognize the women’s role. First they need to give the space and then they need to encourage the women. Even now recognizing has still not come out yet because especially in the society men have taken leadership roles for many years so they may be concerned that if women get in power they will lose their position, so we need to very softly advocate to get there, to participate.
The same with all ethnics; the first problem is the stereotypes and another one is that in the society there is no gender sensitivity because of the stereotypes. We [WLB] do advocacy seminars on the ground and otherwise we work with advocacy on a national level to reach the policy level and also international level. Mostly for the women’s rights we work together. Because without giving awareness on the ground we cannot go to change the policy so that’s why we do together for both things.
Even though half of the population are women in the society we never had a chance to speak up our voice so I feel like if we are staying together in the society men and women, if we would build our society together, that would be faster to develop, but if only men they will take the burden more. If we can work together and take responsibly together, it would be a great society for our future. Before we never saw in the village level administration any females but after the 2010 election they have two women leaders in the village level and in some villages they can see how women are strong to stand for their village and to fight against some harmful projects in their village, and they can see how women are taking leadership roles in their village. So now it has changed a little, not completely, but we are getting some women in leadership roles in the society.
Conflict in northern Burma: “We want sustainable peace, meaningful peace, genuine peace”
Northern Burma and also in the whole northern area there are many ethnic armed groups who are staying there and still fighting until now. In every fighting or every war, women suffer a lot. I mean not only women but also men, but it is a different situation not secure to stay for women and no safety because we are women. Also we [WLB] have been reporting about the sexual violence cases in the conflict area so we can see how women suffer in the whole border area. So until now we have been against all the fighting. We want sustainable peace, meaningful peace, genuine peace. Until now, after the NCA, they have had a lot of talking about peace. If they would like to work towards a meaningful peace process, the first thing they should do is to stop fighting in all areas and then they can start the political dialogue. But the current situation is different, because even though they are talking about peace on the table on the other hand they are still fighting, still fighting. So they have the two things: one is the fire and one is the water, and that’s why it has been continuing until now and that’s why we released the statement [for Burma Army] to stop the fighting.
Peace process: “We are still calling for all-inclusiveness”
The WLB, we work for inclusiveness in the NCA, and we have talked many times that if we would like to have meaningful peace. They should give space for all armed groups. I mean not only for signatory groups but also non-signatory groups, for all things they need to be together to discuss and then they can solve the problem together. That’s why we are still calling for all-inclusiveness. Also I feel like the whole process has been very complicated in the past so now that the new government is trying to continue the peace process, they should give the space, all-inclusiveness, to solve all problems.
Also international funds, they have invested a lot in the peace process. I mean not this government, the previous government, but we don’t know [where it went], nobody counted that. Also still now, fighting cannot stop. If they would like to continue the peace process, first they should stop the fighting. Because of the trust building, if first they don’t stop the fighting, they cannot get trust between each other.
In fighting areas we can see that they have planned a lot of projects, so that’s why they continue fighting. Mega projects like dam projects or others. Some mega projects are long term projects so that’s why also they should do consultations not only with the ethnic leaders but with people from the ground. They should think not only about the money but also should think about the impact for the people – livelihood and environment – all issues. They should think about long term impact, not only for now.
The NLD-led government and the 21st century Peace Conference: “We want meaningful participation; not only for sitting on the seat”
Until now, we don’t know much about the Panglong conference, just we can see and we can read the news and we know from the newspapers about that, but still there is not enough women’s participation. I mean not only participation but we want meaningful participation; not only for sitting on the seat. Another thing is that we haven’t seen the CSOs’ [Civil Society Organisation] role in the coming peace conference, so we don’t know what it will be like and how they will do for the consultation for the CSOs. Also the political situation and the peace process, it is very important to consult the CSOs in Burma because the CSOs are very closely working with the community.
We haven’t seen much yet [from the new government] because it has been a very short time, only three months so that’s a very young government. All that is done by the previous government for many years is so complicated, so we will wait and see how the NLD government will handle the ethnic issue and the peace process. If they cannot handle the peace process and the ethnic issue, then it [the process] can continue for a long time. Also another thing is that they should understand the ethnic situation and also they should reduce the decentralization. Currently that’s why mega projects and the peace process are sometimes related because Naypidaw is just selling a whole part of the country so that’s also been related, for a long time.
Women’s participation: “They cannot make sense of the women’s perspective because they are men”
The military and also ethnic armed groups agreed for 30% women participation, but just on paper not in reality. We, the WLB, are talking about at least 30% women participation; we call for all decision-making levels not only the peace process, but also all decision-making levels because half the population are women, and in the fighting between two groups women suffer a lot, so we can raise the women’s voice. They cannot make sense of the women’s perspective because they are men so they don’t know women’s needs, how women suffer, so that’s why we want women’s participation on every step from the ground to the national level.
Until now we need to be lobbying not only ethnic armed groups but also the military too and also the parliament, because even though we have more women parliament members in the parliament, we should think about gender sensitivity, because even though there are more women if we have don’t have gender sensitivity it’s very difficult to raise the women’s voice.
Now some leaders from the WLB founders are around the peace table, for example Mra Raza Linn, Mi Su Pwint and also Zipporah Sein. They also have many challenges because there are very few women among the men. Also culturally it is very difficult to raise their voice. They are very strong, but still they have challenges to fight for women. Mostly women are trying to be involved in the whole process, not only in the peace process, but also in the political transition, but because they are women it is difficult.
Sexual violence and ongoing impunity: “If someone accuses the Tatmadaw, they will take action”
For sexual violence cases, the WLB especially works against the state sponsored sexual violence cases. But now we are also working on access to justice. Under access to justice we support some lawyer costs and medical costs for the cases, and also we support some victims, not only for military cases but we support civilian cases too. They [victims] mostly can’t get access to justice because they are poor; no money to get justice. That’s why they contact us. Especially we work in all of our member organizations’ base area. In Burma for the sexual violence cases, the first thing is no rule of law, and also impunity for the perpetrator, especially for military because in the constitution they are given special impunity.
We have the total collection for the sexual violence cases since 2005. July 2015- April 2016 we have found that 16 villages reported almost 300 cases. 44 cases are sexual and rape cases. Since 2010, we have had 92 cases in the conflict area that were committed by the military [Burma Army] and 2 cases in non-conflict area committed by the military. Also we can see very clearly about the Kachin—the two Kachin teachers’ case. We can see the situation is very obvious, but we cannot get justice, seek justice, because of the military. The pattern is still the same.
Only two cases we could get to the civilian court in the Rakhine [Arakan] state because the civil society was very strong and also in the Rakhine state it is a very sensitive area so that’s why they transferred the cases to civilian courts that were committed by the Tatmadaw [Burma Army]. Also they were child rape cases, and women from their community were very angry. In one case they sentenced for 11 years. In another case five years for the military and also ten years for the civilian court. So fifteen years’ sentence. (See the WLB’s statement about one of the child victims, an 8-year-old who died as a result of the assault.)
In Burma, the Tatmadaw cases, not only Tatmadaw but also all state actors, we cannot touch. Until now it has been very difficult to touch the Tatmadaw cases because, I can remember when we did the statement about the two Kachin teacher case, at the time a military chief said in media that if someone accuses the Tatmadaw, they will take action; he threatened those seeking justice. Also, not only the right treatment of the victim and their family, but also they treat less because even though they know, they are afraid. They don’t want to speak up. Also it is very rare that cases come to court. The justice process especially disappears at the village level because, the first thing is the victim blaming and another thing is the stereotypes, also another is the relationship with politics and it is very difficult for victims to speak up about what happened to them.
Conflict, IDPs, and Aid Shift: “Some have been trafficked because of lack of humanitarian aid”
Especially for rainy season [June to October] and the summer season [March to April], it is very difficult for the IDPs because there is no shelter also the weather is making their situation worse. Currently IDPs are still running away because there is still fighting. Also another thing is that they have more difficulty for food because they [international donors] cut humanitarian aid in the border area and after the new government donors now want to fund inside. Also they would like to go through the government, so border aid has closed. So, now they get some border aid but very few so that’s also difficult for them.
Even though there is the new government now and some are talking about refugee repatriation, but they are not yet ready because of the mines and also not sure process; no transparency in the [repatriation planning] process and also not enough consultation about where they will be placed and also about their life, how to rebuild their family and how to work. So, that also needs to be prepared before, but it’s still now not clear. For some, it’s now very difficult to get their food. That has put them in a very difficult situation, and some, even they go back themselves because of a difficult situation, and some try to go out to get a job especially for refugees, so that’s why some have been trafficked because of lack of humanitarian aid.
After the new government came, a lot of donors would like to give funds inside and also they would like to give through the government, because of the NLD government, so that is also a challenge for the activists and for us CSOs. That’s why international should support CSOs too, I mean border based CSOs too. I don’t mean not to give to the government, they should give to the government and on the other hand, they should give the CSOs too. They should give funds also to the border based CSOs and also about investment, it is not a good time to start big mega projects because the situation is so complicated, still complicated in Burma. So, we don’t want mega projects, we want community development projects, to mobilise communities to be developed.
Reaching out to the international community: “They can consider what’s happening in the ground”
We [WLB, SHRF, KHRG, and TBC] discussed and we gave her [Ms. Yanghee Lee – Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar/Burma] information focused on the fighting [on Saturday June 18]. We gave key information about the fighting and also about the mega projects and land grabbing—how they relate to human rights violations – and also drug issue and sexual violence cases, we focused on those issues. We just gave information to her about what’s happening in the border area and ethnic areas.
I think she can give the information from the conflict area and how land grabbing and mega projects impact the local community. If she can give the information and mention it to Aung San Suu Kyi when they meet, they can review the mega projects, and when they have peace talks they can consider what’s happening in the ground.
“We don’t want any more fighting also we don’t want any more bulldozers war because of mega projects.”
Burma Link interviewed Soe Soe Nwe on June 20, 2016.