Dispatches From AWID 2012: Burmese Women’s Groups to World: Hold the Applause

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Dispatches From AWID 2012: Burmese Women’s Groups to World: Hold the Applause

Jessica Mack

At AWID 2012, Burmese women's groups described the culture of fear, oppression, and abuse still rife within the country, and warned the international community not to celebrate just yet.

The 12th Annual AWID Forum is taking place April 18-22 in Istanbul, Turkey, and has drawn more than 2,000 feminist and development thinkers from around the world. The theme is Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson and Global Contributor Jessica Mack are at the event, bringing you up-to-date news and insights throughout. Follow #AWIDForum and #AWID2012 on Twitter for more.

Burma has most recently been in the news for the “return” of beloved pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the signaling by world leaders that the decades-long sanctions on the country will soon be lifted.

Yet the Burmese women’s groups speaking today on the panel, “Women Resisting Militarized Development in Burma,” said: not so fast. Speakers included representatives from the Shan Women’s Action Network, the Women’s League of Burma, and Kuki Women’s Human Rights Organization, and spoke frankly about the persistent culture of fear in Burma, particularly for women and ethnic minorities.

“The fear is there,” said Nang Lao Liang Won. Every day people, and even those political prisoners recently released, know they are under continuous threat from the Military government.

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“They are not Aung San Suu Kyi. They are vulnerable, they are ordinary people and they can be picked up any time. They are not famous political prisoners.” This is a critical nuance that the global media seems to have missed, rather leaping to prematurely euphoric conclusions that Burma is “on the right track.”

“The regime is very strategic – they would let Aung San Suu Kyi travel all over Burma and would let her go abroad, but they are restricting her from speaking to ethnic groups,” said Nang. That is, the appearance and flourishing of “democracy” in Burma is still very much under tight military control and the world should not be duped. 

To give you a picture of that fear, while panelists did speak candidly and said they felt safe doing so, they said only their names, not their photos, could be published. The advocates also conduct most of their work from the safety of Thailand and India, though still travel to Burma frequently.

Panelists spoke about how women are harmed by the military regime’s manipulation of natural resources, in particular dam-building and the laying of gas pipeline throughout the entire country. Construction on the Tamanti Dam began along the Indo-Burma border in 2007; 2,400 people were forcibly relocated and given a measly US $5 for their troubles, if they were lucky. The resulting insecurity and poverty disproportionately affects women, and serves to marginalized already-vulernable groups, since primarily ethnic minorities inhabit the flood plain.

As foreign governments signal a lifting of sanctions, they also have begun to invest heavily in Burma, all without any apparent regard for how women and minorities are being treated:

  • From fiscal year 2009/10 to 2010/11, foreign investments in Burma grew from US $329 million to US $20 billion.
  • At the same time, the government’s expenditures on health increased from just 2 percent to 3 percent of the overall budget, while investments in education increased from 2 percent to a paltry 6 percent. 

While there does seem to be great excitement and hope in Burma following the release and election of Aung San Suu Kyi, the takeaway here is that the global media and international donors and NGOs should hold the applause and keep a vigilant watch.

This is not a case of a Junta turned soft, but perhaps just another strategic move. Either way, it’s too early to tell and women in Burma still continue to suffer. Systematic rape as a tool of war also persists in the country, and on May 6th to 13th of this year, Nobel Women’s Initiative and Women’s League of Burma will launch a week of action for their international campaign to stop rape and ethnic violence.